11/10/2006 1:00AM

Rocky Gulch may hit $1M on big day

Zia Park
Rocky Gulch, after winning at Zia on Oct. 2, defends his title in Sunday's New Mexico Cup Classic.

Rocky Gulch will defend his title in the $200,000 New Mexico Cup Classic, and with a win would surpass $1 million in earnings, which would be a first for a Thoroughbred bred in New Mexico. It would be only the latest accomplishment for Rocky Gulch, who has become popular for spotting large amounts of weight to his rivals and winning, time and time again.

Zia, a slots-rich track that opened in 2005 and is under contract to be sold to Penn National Gaming, is celebrating New Mexico-breds with its all-stakes New Mexico Cup. The program, which was worth $1.5 million during its inaugural running last year, features seven divisional Thoroughbred stakes worth a combined $1.2 million, and four divisional Quarter Horse stakes worth more than $850,000. The New Mexico Cup is one of the most lucrative cards for statebreds ever assembled in North America.

Rocky Gulch is a winner of 16 of 30 starts and $895,547, and should go favored in the one-mile Classic. He has won three of his last four starts, including the $45,000 Carlsbad for New Mexico-breds at Zia on Oct. 2 in his last start. He broke on top and led throughout to win the six-furlong race by three-quarters of a length under apprentice Travis Cunningham.

"He really ran his race the other day," said Terry Walker, who trains Rocky Gulch for his breeder, Larry Teague. "He left real good, and they eyeballed him a little bit in the middle of the turn. Then he opened up about two or three lengths, and then Travis just kind of sat there."

Rocky Gulch's other recent wins have come in allowances. But despite the sharp form, it has not been an easy ride for him this year. He had a chance to surpass $1 million in earnings during the Sunland Park meet, but surprisingly was unable to secure a win in any of the stakes, which he had swept during last year's meet.

"A lot of people gave up on Rocky," said Barbara Brown, who is Walker's wife and the caretaker of Rocky Gulch.

Rocky Gulch did have a legitimate excuse for the defeats. Several factors were working against him, including some breathing issues. "He entrapped on us a time or two," said Walker. "And it sort of got him scared, just that and packing all the weight. He still wasn't running bad. But he wasn't running like his old self."

Walker and Brown went to work on correcting the breathing issues.

"I went through five or six combinations of bits, trying to find something on him that would work to help that," said Brown. "We got real lucky. With the breathing problems he had, some horses don't come back."

Brown said she determined that a Hanover bit was the best fit for Rocky Gulch.

"It helps depress the back of his tongue," she said, adding that after reading lots of research she found that using a tongue tie was also working against Rocky Gulch. "If their tongue is loose, they have a shot at getting everything straightened back out, but if it's tied, once he entraps, that's the way it stays."

Rocky Gulch tried out the equipment changes this spring, started improving in his races, and has been on a roll since July, winning 3 of 5 starts. Getting the milestone win Sunday would be special, since Rocky Gulch was raised on a 40-acre farm in the same town as the track.

Teague, who has lived in Hobbs since 1959, has 10 broodmares, and planned the mating that produced Rocky Gulch. He claimed Rocky Gulch's dam, Rona Prospect, in New Mexico, then purchased his sire, Dry Gulch, at a sale in California. Rocky Gulch was a hit as soon as he hit the ground.

"He was much bigger, much flashier than all the other colts, a big husky colt," said Teague.

Teague said Rocky Gulch has been his horse of a lifetime, and when his career is over he plans to give Rocky Gulch to Brown. Before then, Rocky Gulch would seem to have a lot of racing left to do in New Mexico.

"As long as he's happy, then we're going to run him," said Teague. "We first thought we might retire him at the million, but then, you know, he's got to live a different life, and he's enjoying what he's doing. He enjoys running. He's healthy, so we'll just run him until he says he doesn't want to."

Right now, it's hard to fathom racing in New Mexico without Rocky Gulch.