05/23/2001 11:00PM

Thunder Gulch's star on the rise

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The younger stallions are having all the success in this year's Triple Crown, as Maria's Mon sired Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos in his first crop of foals and Thunder Gulch got Preakness winner Point Given in his second crop. Among the placed horses, Thunder Gulch also sired Invisible Ink, who ran second in the Derby. These results are good news for America's stallion corps.

Among our better stallions, there is no shortage of high-quality horses who are likely to sire sprinters and milers, but there is definite opportunity for stallions who can sire the classic horse. Not only is television coverage weighted heavily toward coverage of the classics, but the really serious money in stallion syndications, stud fees, and yearling auctions is attracted to the sires who can get the best of the best.

Consider for a moment the breeders' reception of Thunder Gulch before and after his stock were proven on the racetrack. A winner of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, Thunder Gulch was the champion 3-year-old colt of 1995. A son of sprint champion Gulch, he was retired to Ashford Stud, the North American branch of Coolmore's leafy international oak.

Initially, he stood for a $40,000 stud fee, the highest for any new stallion of 1996. Typically, the first two seasons at stud are the easiest ones for stallion managers to fill, and the next two are increasingly difficult, as the horse's racing success recedes in memory and the uncertainties of success weigh more heavily on breeders' minds.

Thunder Gulch's first two seasons at stud in Kentucky had produced sizable crops of 87 and 88 foals, but the future was no clearer for him than any other unproven sire.

Following his third season at stud, a group of Japanese breeders reportedly made an offer to purchase Thunder Gulch. The offer was rejected, but the owners reached an agreement to stand the stallion under lease at East Stud on the Japanese island of Hokkaido for the 1999 Northern Hemisphere season. His stud fee there was 6 million yen (about $50,000).

The trip to Japan occupied Thunder Gulch's fourth year at stud, which is typically the toughest sell for any stallion, especially for one whose strong suit appears to be getting runners who appreciate distance and a bit of time to mature.

The stallion returned to Ashford for his fifth Northern Hemisphere season in 2000, and Thunder Gulch covered 64 mares, with many breeders waiting to see how his offspring ran at 3.

In contrast to his fee upon entering stud, Thunder Gulch was announced to stand the 2001 season at $25,000, which was revised upward to $35,000 and then $50,000 following the successes of Spain in the Breeders' Cup Distaff and Point Given in the Hollywood Futurity, both Grade 1 events.

As enthusiasm for Point Given has risen this spring, the last 20 or so nominations to the stallion have reportedly traded at $75,000. These fluctuations point out that stallion seasons, like any other freely traded commodity, rise and fall with demand, and nothing raises breeders' interest in a stallion than the promise of classic glory.

Although Thunder Gulch will have no American-bred yearlings this year, because of his season in Japan, elevated demand for his services will continue as long as he has the horses who catch the eyes of breeders and buyers.

One of the stallion's most successful supporters has been the Thoroughbred Corp, which bred both Spain and Point Given, and also races them. These are the two best racers yet sired by Thunder Gulch, and both their dams, the Regal and Royal mare Drina and the Turkoman mare Turko's Turn, were bred back to Thunder Gulch this year. Both are in foal, as is Thoroughbred Corp.'s top race filly, Sharp Cat.

All three are boarded at Mill Ridge Farm, owned by Dr. John and Alice Chandler. Mill Ridge, which stands Gone West, champion Anees, and last year's Belmont winner Commendable, also raised Spain and Point Given.

Alice Chandler said that Point Given "was always a nice colt. A lot of people have commented about how big he is, but percentage-wise, he was not a huge foal. Nor was he the biggest foal on the farm. He just grew and grew and grew, and he never put a foot wrong."

The best horses tend to have the soundest physiques, immune systems, and mental attitudes, because a horse can't miss many steps against Grade 1 competition. Point Given showed these qualities from the beginning, although he is still a little green in his behavior.

Chandler recalled that "we never had any troubles with him all the time he was here. But when we had to ship him out of here, he wasn't too sure about that van and decided to balk. He had gotten so big, it took four men to put him on the van."