Inspired by this post on HRN, I decided to talk about when I met my favorite horse.
But first, let’s get in the old TARDIS & dial it back to May 1995. It’s a lazy day in Memphis, Tenn. and in the neighborhood of Raleigh there is an almost-13-year-old girl trying hard not to clean her room. She turns on the TV that sits atop the tall chest of drawers by the closet and starts channel surfing. The channel chosen depends entirely on the quality of the reception, because this is the analog era and she lives in a non-cablevision home. By a great stroke of luck, her search ends when horses appear onscreen – it’s the Kentucky Derby! And even better – the station comes in pretty good! The colors are a little weird, but hey, the horses aren’t too fuzzy.
The talking heads are buzzing about a filly named Serena’s Song. Awesome! Girl Power! She’s pretty! But then, they show a list of all the Derby horses, and a name leaps off the screen (literally, had 3-D glasses been involved, since the picture was so bad!) and into the heart of our heroine: Thunder Gulch.
THIS is her Derby horse. How awesome is a horse that carries that name- it conjures up the imagery of outlaws and Indians, black hats and white hats, mustangs, Monument Valley, and showdowns at high noon.
Eager to catch a glimpse of her Derby horse, she watches as each big favorite is shown, and she learns that Serena’s Song has the same trainer as this Thunder Gulch. But when will they show him? Finally, there he is! And what’s this? His jockey is wearing PURPLE and PINK SILKS*!!! It was meant to be!
The chords of My Old Kentucky Home fill the speakers and the horses step onto the track. Our heroine can barely contain herself; she would will herself through the screen to be there at the track at this very moment, to cheer on her Derby horse – but her room wouldn’t get cleaned and that would mean losing TV privileges…
You know how this story ends: after stalking the pace set by frontrunner Serena’s Song, Thunder Gulch burst to the lead in the final turn and drew off to win the Kentucky Derby by 3 lengths. As he galloped under the finish line, an almost-13-year-old girl in Memphis, Tenn. became a racing fan FOR LIFE.
And from that moment, I wanted to go see my favorite horse in the flesh. It would be nearly a decade before I got the chance, but finally, on a frigid day in January 2003, I met Thunder Gulch.
I had learned of the January stallion shows in the Blood-Horse, and of course, Ashford Stud was one of the first farms I found when the internet came around. I got on the Ashford email list and that year, I received an official invite to their open house. It was during the winter break at school, and I finagled time off from the job I had at the time (which wasn’t much since I don’t remember what it was!).
Kentucky that winter was ice cold. It snowed a bit, but the temps were so cold that the flakes didn’t stick to the ground when they fell, they got blown around like grains of sand. That never happened in Memphis.
Ashford Stud is gorgeous, a definite must-see for any racing fan. At the time, Johannesburg was the newest star to stand at the Coolmore-owned farm in Versailles. Fusaichi Pegasus was also a big name in 2003, when his first crop were new yearlings. But I was there for one horse, the one who helped make Ashford, and Coolmore itself, a name in America: Thunder Gulch.
When he was led out of the palatial barn, I was first struck by how small he was – I had seen his son, Point Given, tower over the world. But Thunder Gulch was as compact as a quarter horse, which made him very approachable. I walked right up to him and patted his burnt-red chestnut shoulder. He drank in all of the attention, posing for several photos before the stallion manager told us it was time for him to go back inside. He, along with FuPeg and a few others, had just shipped back from Australia. They had not grown out a winter coat while on southern-hemisphere time. I could totally empathize – despite wearing a heavy overcoat with a fur hood, I was a popsicle by that time.
I followed Thunder Gulch back inside of his barn and watched as he shook off and took a few turns of his stall. I didn’t want to leave. I told the stallion manager that Thunder Gulch had made me a fan, and it was a huge thrill getting to meet a childhood hero. The manager, in that understated way common to horsemen, simply said, “Yeah, we like him around here, too.”
In the years since Thunder Gulch won the Derby, I have had the chance to visit many farms, have seen hundreds of good horses, and even done the Kentucky Derby. But Thunder Gulch will always have the #1 spot in my heart, for he is the horse who started it all.
*It would be almost a year before I realized that the colors were, in fact, royal blue and orange. That is when I found a copy of the Blood-Horse’s Kentucky Derby magazine with TG on the cover at the Kroger store. I told you the colors were weird on that TV!