06/02/2013 7:00AM

Catching up with Thunder Gulch: A revered senior stallion

Asuncion Pineyrua photo/Courtesy of Ashford Stud
Thunder Gulch, the 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner, is covering a limited book of mares at age 21.

This year’s Preakness Stakes brought a sense of déjà vu to horse-racing fans when they witnessed the Hall of Fame trainer-jockey combination of D. Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens return to the winner’s circle in a classic.

Lukas and Stevens first teamed up for classic glory in the 1988 Kentucky Derby with the late, great filly Winning Colors. After an estrangement during the early 1990s, they joined forces again in 1995 with a Michael Tabor-owned colt who would fly under the radar in the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

Under a skillful, stalking ride by Stevens, Thunder Gulch pulled off a 24.50-to-1 upset over 18 opponents, including two other Lukas-trained horses, in the 1995 Derby. The son of Gulch would rebound from a close third in the Preakness, won by the Lukas-trained Timber Country, with a game win in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, engaging Star Standard in a midstretch duel before pulling away.

Thunder Gulch would win three more stakes – including the Travers over the recently departed Pyramid Peak – before retiring due to injury in October and would secure the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male. Thunder Gulch’s Derby-Belmont-Travers hat trick was the first in 53 years, just the sort of accomplishment that would augur a long and productive career at stud.

Eighteen years later, Thunder Gulch is the senior stallion at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky., and firmly ensconced in the annals of the Irish-based partnership’s history as the horse that gave Tabor his first success at the top level of American racing and as one of Coolmore’s cornerstone sires.

“Thunder Gulch’s success on the track was very significant,” said Ashford Stud manager Dermot Ryan. “He took Michael Tabor to the pinnacle in a very short time, and I guess you could say that provided the impetus for much of the success that followed both here and in Europe. Following on, Mr. Tabor has been keenly involved in American racing and, with the other Coolmore partners, has enjoyed considerable success. If Thunder Gulch hadn’t done so well early on, perhaps we wouldn’t be in that position.”

Thunder Gulch was the catalyst for Tabor’s involvement with the influential racing and breeding operation of Coolmore, as Tabor bought the colt privately as a 2-year-old in 1994 with guidance from Coolmore adviser Demi O’Byrne and then sold a half-interest to Coolmore’s John Magnier after the horse was retired from racing.

That decision to partner on Thunder Gulch’s stud career helped to further cement Tabor’s relationship with Coolmore, and the ownership group has gone on to rack up numerous top-level wins around the world with the likes of Montjeu, Giant’s Causeway, Johannesburg, High Chaparral, Camelot, and St Nicholas Abbey, to name just a few. Tabor, along with Derrick Smith, reached U.S. classic success again in 2007 with Belmont heroine Rags to Riches, now a broodmare at Coolmore’s Ireland headquarters.

Thunder Gulch’s legacy as a stallion for Coolmore’s American division is no less important, as he became Ashford’s first leading North American general sire in 2001 after his son Point Given – from Thunder Gulch’s second crop – took the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers over the summer en route to Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male honors.

Thunder Gulch stood one season in Japan under a lease agreement with Tabor and Coolmore just before Point Given’s emergence, but he returned to reap the benefits of early success and has remained at Ashford ever since. Thunder Gulch, Giant’s Causeway, Tale of the Cat, and Fusaichi Pegasus make up the veteran foundation of an operation that in recent years has added several exciting, young stallions.

Now age 21, Thunder Gulch is in the homestretch of an active stud career and covered a limited book of 30 to 40 mares over the past couple of years. His lengthy stint as a shuttle stallion (to both Australia and South America at varying points of his career) ended in 2010, and as the current breeding season draws to a close, Thunder Gulch enjoys a relaxed daily schedule filled with plenty of pasture time.

“It is fair to say that he is one of the favorite horses among the stallion men,” Ryan said. “He has always been a straightforward horse to do anything with and is a pleasure to have around the yard. He is well traveled and has seen it all, so he certainly fits the role of elder statesman among the stallions.”

As a champion and one of the more memorable performers of his era, Thunder Gulch still draws his share of visitors, and, not surprisingly, traffic peaks the week before the Kentucky Derby, when fans arrive in the Bluegrass State and visit Ashford’s grounds to pay homage to the classic winner.

The good-tempered champion “takes it all in his stride,” according to Ryan, and overall is easing comfortably into his elder years. Thanks to the advent of YouTube, fans can still revisit a time when Thunder Gulch made history for some of the game’s biggest names, and his conquering of the Belmont will linger in the minds of many as this year’s race approaches. No horse has captured both the Derby and Belmont since he accomplished that feat in 1995.

Thunder Gulch

1992, Ch. h., Gulch – Line of Thunder,
by Storm Bird
Owner: Michael Tabor
Breeder: Peter Brant (Ky.)
Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas
Race record: 16-9-2-2, $2,915,086
Major wins: Kentucky Derby (G1), Belmont S. (G1), Travers S. (G1), Florida Derby (G1), Swaps S. (G2), Remsen S. (G2), Fountain of Youth S. (G2)
Awards: Champion 3-year-old male, 1995
Stands at: Ashford Stud, Versailles, Ky.
At stud: Leading general sire in 2001.
Best progeny: Point Given, Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male 2001, Preakness S. (G1), Belmont S. (G1), Travers S. (G1); Spain, Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), La Brea S. (G1); Balance, Santa Anita Oaks (G1), Santa Margarita Invitational H. (G1), Las Virgenes S. (G1); Circular Quay, Hopeful S. (G1), Louisiana Derby (G2); Tweedside, Coaching Club American Oaks (G1); Shotgun Gulch, Vinery Madison S. (G1); Sense of Style, Matron S. (G1).