Category Archives: Kentucky Derby

Throwback Thursday

Here’s a throwback appropriate for this particular Thursday.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in the mid-90’s, and a 12 year-old-girl is at home watching TV instead of cleaning her room. Channel surfing, her search stops when she sees horses on the screen. It’s Kentucky Derby day.

Excited to find horses to watch on this otherwise-forgettable weekend, she sits up on the end of her bed, studying each horse as the camera pans across the paddock, every inch of which is occupied by either equine or entourage. Then she sees him: a chestnut colt with a white bridle, his name, “Thunder Gulch” imposed over the screen in those 90’s era, too-cute-too-mod graphics. She is immediately taken by this horse and his awesome name. 25-1? What are odds when you’re almost 13 and in love with a horse?

Then, the jockeys arrive, and Thunder Gulch’s is particularly handsome. Her TV set is old, and in this era pre-digital signal, the rabbit-ears antennae provide a less-than-perfect image. The shining silks appear to be purple, with a pink circle on the chest and pink stripes down the sleeves. If there was any doubt before about which horse she would pick for this race, the silks sealed the deal. Would it have made a difference if she’d known the colors were actually blue and orange?

Excitement builds as she watches the horses parade to the post, and she is interested to hear each sportscaster give their picks – none of them mention “her” Thunder Gulch.

Her pulse races as the horses load into the gate, and a shiver jolts down her spine as they break in a tremendous rumble to make the first run past the cheering crowd at Churchill Downs. She wishes she were there among those lucky people, to hear the hoofbeats and smell the dirt, and watch her horse gallop by. As the horses spin around the turns, she is more and more drawn into the drama unfolding in that short lap around the track – Thunder Gulch is moving like a winner!

As he draws away from the field in the final furlong (she doesn’t even know what that means yet!) she jumps off her bed and cheers, right there in her room in Memphis, Tennessee! She has picked a Kentucky Derby Winner! She, a 12-almost-13-year-old girl, has picked a Kentucky Derby winner that none of the experts even mentioned! She feels like the smartest person on earth – who cares about that bad math test at school, she just picked a Derby winner – on the first try!

When mom peeks in to see what the fuss is about, the girl tells her she just picked the Kentucky Derby winner, and that she wants to go to the Derby some day. Mom smiles and says, “We’ll see…”

Thunder Gulch became my favorite horse at that moment, and each day I would scour the sports pages looking for any news or photos of him. I got to know D. Wayne Lukas, the colt’s trainer, and Gary Stevens, his jockey, through the few stories I could find. The Preakness two weeks later was a disappointment, with Thunder Gulch’s stablemate, Timber Country, taking that jewel, but when “my” Derby horse won the Belmont (and that nifty champagne-colored Chrysler minivan!) I was once again on cloud 9.  Later that summer, my family took a trip to Lexington and Louisville, where a life-sized statue of Thunder Gulch was the focal point of the Kentucky Derby Museum. I had never been to a place where horses were so important, where what had been a childhood obsession could be something you actually did for a job. I vowed then to one day work in horse racing.

Thunder Gulch Stall plaque Jan 2015 Thunder Gulch in stall Jan 2015

It has been twenty years since that glorious Derby day. Thunder Gulch retired to Ashford Stud, in Versailles, Kentucky, due to an injury. He became a world-class sire, standing in Japan, Australia and Argentina, as well as Kentucky, and topping the sire list in 2001. That year, his son, Point Given, won the Santa Anita Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Travers and Haskell en route to a Horse of the Year title and nearly $4 Million in earnings. Thunder Gulch’s daughters were also stone-cold runners, with Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner, Spain, among the best.

The 12-year-old girl grew into a young lady who could actually enjoy the infield’s charms, eventually attending many editions of America’s greatest race. Today, she lives in Louisville, where her job is to make it easier for all the now-12-year-old girls to find news and photos of their favorite racehorses.

Thunder Gulch retired from stud today to live out his golden years in the rolling pastures. I visited with him briefly a couple weeks ago, and will do so as often as possible for the rest of his days.


Thunder Gulch Selfie 2015


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Filed under Kentucky Derby, Thunder Gulch Love

When Stars Align

I am most sorry for the young ones, the newbies.

They who didn’t sit for 15 minutes knowing unequivocally what it felt like to have witnessed a Triple Crown winner, all unbridled joy and relief and passion, in tears and laughing for that skinny bay colt named Real Quiet. And then, as quickly as it happened, it was stripped away. A hollow, deflated feeling replaced that joy – but the memory of it was still there. We’d finally gotten it – then it slipped away. I wouldn’t wish that feeling on my worst enemy.

The newbies now only know the heartbreak – War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty (oh Smarty!), Big Brown – and now I’ll Have Another. The tyranny of “What If?” will follow him for all time, for unlike the others, he didn’t even get to try his luck at Belmont Park.

The newbies now know what that dread hollowness feels like. They now have a piece of the cynicism that infects us long-timers, the first of what will be a deeply-rooted infestation should they show up again in the years to come. Oh, how wonderful would it have been had these youngsters seen a Triple Crown winner so early in their fandom! It’s what we all wish for, right?

And yet –  with each Triple Crown season I am renewed as a racing fan. I carry all the emotional battle scars of watching these horses, and have learned who to put my faith in when the big race rolls around. Despite all the naysayers, I am certain that the 12th Triple Crown winner is close at hand. I’ve stayed up late to see the Super Moon. I’ve looked through a pinhole camera to watch the solar eclipse. And I will never forget where I was during the Transit of Venus. The stars will align for that most rare of equine accomplishments. I want those new fans to feel the excitement of a Triple Crown, and like an addict looking for the next high, I want to feel it again, too.

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Filed under Belmont Park, Kentucky Derby, Triple Crown 2012

Kentucky Derby 2012 – Random Pre-Race Thoughts

I feel like I know these Derby horses better than any year since probably 2007. As the posts were drawn today, I shivered with excitement. I like this feeling!

I think the draw was pretty fair. Horses who most likely wouldn’t factor got non-factor posts, ie, Daddy Long Legs – I love it when international horses come over here, but the Derby is really a different animal from any of the big stakes overseas. As Godolphin painfully learned over a decade of trying to win it, the Derby is a stubbornly American race. Horses must be prepped in the states to be competitive, to experience the unique pace, surface and riding style that is commonplace in the Derby. I hope Daddy Long Legs runs well, but I don’t see him winning.

Liaison, the “other Baffert”, drew post 20. I like Liaison, but his 2-year-old form hasn’t progressed to 3, and I am not really sure why he’s here. Of course, he could win the whole thing, as “other” horses are wont to do (Thunder Gulch, Real Quiet, Super Saver, Charismatic…). It doesn’t help that he’ll be breaking from the parking lot, though.

Bodemeister has gotten some flack for being “inexperienced” since he didn’t race at 2. He has run 4 times in 2012, more than Union Rags and Take Charge Indy, and he has run at Oaklawn Park on its biggest day, which draws huge crowds. Curlin only ran 3 times before making the Derby, and I don’t think he had to face a horse like Creative Cause in a stretch duel. Breaking from post 6, Bodemeister has a great chance of busting a 130-year old jinx.


Hansen has been the most entertaining horse on the Derby trail. He is a Type-A standout in color and attitude, and with a brassy, frontrunning style to match. It was a delight watching his owner, Dr. Kendall Hansen, react to the post position draw when he knew Hansen wouldn’t draw the #1 (he got post 14). Sure, the blue tail idea turned into a fiasco, but the “Hansen Girls” with their own blue tails & matching peep-toe heels were a fantastic diversion. Dr. Hansen has truly enjoyed every minute of owning the horse Hansen, and I hope someday to do the same with my own race horse. It won’t be hair dye, but I can totally see a winners’ circle ritual involving Elvis-style shades & curled lips!

I am having a hard time settling on a top horse. That’s why I am so glad I can make multiple 50-cent Tris with different combinations! I have liked Union Rags since the Champagne. He is a magnificent specimen, with chiseled physique and always an alert look of intelligence. Also, his owner, Phyllis Wyeth, is a cool lady. Union Rags has been unable to show his talent in clutch situations, however – his BC Juvenile run wasn’t enough to pass the tiring Hansen, and in the Florida Derby, he lacked the kick that impressed everyone so much in the Fountain of Youth. Union Rags has started a pattern this year of grand runs followed by flops – the Derby is on his “up” slope. He will start from post 4.

Gemologist and Alpha are the two I can’t separate. Their Wood Memorial was a clash of titans, with Gemologist fighting out the win. Alpha has been plagued with minor setbacks and a sort of indecisiveness from his connections – two strikes against the son of Bernardini. Gemologist is a brilliant athlete (plus I like his name!) but he had a long layoff after his KY Jockey Club win in November. I see these two as winners, but with an edge to Gemologist.

Daddy Nose Best has been my top closer all year long. He has a grit and grind that will be valuable in the stretch at Churchill, and I definitely see him hitting the board. He has inhaled the track in the mornings, always a good sign. My other closer candidate is Daddy Nose Best’s stablemate, Sabercat. Sabercat was impressive in the Delta Jackpot last year, navigating traffic on the backstretch and closing sharply to win. He is return races haven’t been stellar, but he looks to be rounding into form for a huge effort Saturday.


How great would it be for longtime trainer Mike Harrington to score a Derby with Creative Cause? The big grey colt has run like so many other “almost there” closers – he runs brilliantly sometimes, but gets into trouble in others. In a 20-horse field, I don’t trust luck to keep him out of a mess.


Don’t let anyone fool you – with Trinniberg, Hansen, Bodemeister and Take Charge Indy all in this race, the pace will be fast.

Finally, I really hope it doesn’t rain this year!!!

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Kentucky Derby 2012: May The Odds Be Ever In Your Favor

The 2012 Kentucky Derby is less than a week away, and in the next few days the drama will reach a fever pitch that won’t subside until the roses are draped over the withers of the lucky (talented and deserving?) winner.

The Derby is so unlike the rest of the racing season, as discussed in this week’s Forbes, but what makes it an anomaly is the source of its magic. 99% of the students at the UA became racing fans by watching the Derby, their ultimate goal is to have a Derby horse, or somehow be involved with that race. It’s the 137 years of history and tradition, the long list of champions, both equine and human, to have their names etched on the plinth of Derby lore, that make it so alluring. It’s also about the heartbreak, as when the Grey Ghost, Native Dancer, went down to defeat in the Derby at the hooves of unknown Dark Star, or when 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird stunned everyone, including racecaller Tom Durkin, to win by 6 in the slop. There is never a dull Derby.

If anything, the Derby is like the Hunger Games of horse racing. Each year, the Horse Capital, Louisville, KY, sends for tributes from each district: Dist. 1, New York; Dist. 2, FLorida; Dist. 3, The South; Dist 4, The Midwest; Dist. 5, the Borderlands; Dist. 6, California.

There are horses who have been pointed to the Derby from birth, like those Hunger Games participants who train and volunteer to play in the Games. Union Rags, El Padrino, Creative Cause and Hansen have all been on this fast-track to Derby, and spent the last year preparing for this day.

Then there are those who find themselves on the Derby trail by sheer luck – Trinniberg, Done Talking and Prospective all are good race horses, but do they truly belong with this group?

The Gamemakers have already begun their work, throwing up obstacles to take out the tributes: Creative Cause arrived in the Capital with a thrown shoe and a cracked hoof; I’ll Have Another had electroshock therapy and hit the vet’s list; Alpha suffered cuts on his legs in the Wood Memorial that turned into an infection, and he missed the first plane to Kentucky; Went The Day Well didn’t have a workout after the Spiral until last week; Hansen got a bit of a blue tail that almost took him out of the Blue Grass.

And they’re not done yet: the coming week we’ll see more drama, possible defections, and there’s nothing more unpredictable than the weather in May in Kentucky. The race itself is a test that requires every bit of physical prowess and intelligence, from both horse and rider, to complete. There are 20 tributes gunning for each other – will the pacesetters crumble, allowing a dark horse to close to victory? Or will there be more jostling and bumping than a demolition Derby? No matter what happens, we will watch, and root for, our favorites. Even if they never race again, we will be forever fans of these Derby horses.

Which horse will survive the Horse Racing Hunger Games? I have my picks, but as it goes every year, it’s more about luck than anything else. And may the odds be ever in your favor.


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The Day I Met My Favorite Horse – Thunder Gulch

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!

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Filed under Kentucky Derby, Thunder Gulch Love

The Excitement Never Dies

Today I sit in my tiny apartment in Shreveport, Louisiana, listening to the anguished cries of my neighbors through the paper-thin walls. You see, they are all LSU fans, and as of this moment, their golden and purple team is scoreless against Alabama in the championship game. All week long, the neighbors have worn team t-shirts, a few sport new stickers or license plates on their cars, and there’s a banner hanging from the balcony above me featuring a growling LSU tiger. Local news stations have made this football game their top story for days, and online, my friends who are Louisiana natives (and a few Memphis folks, too) are abuzz with football cheers. Even though it looks like LSU is going to lose, the excitement around the team won’t wane.

In the coming weeks, horse racing will crank up its own hype machine for the biggest race in America – the Kentucky Derby. I will get out my Derby shirts, invest in a new one for this year, keep an eye out for Derby glasses at thrift shops and devour every scrap of news surrounding the first Saturday in May. It will be easy to keep track of this year, since my time is consumed with Derby news. I feel like I’m returning to the battlefield after a 2-year leave – while I was in school learning about horse racing, it was more scholarly articles, financial reports and equine anatomy than breaking news or workout reports.

But even though I was out of the loop, I was never lacking in enthusiasm. The excitement never dies for the Kentucky Derby, no matter how corporate CDN gets ($50 non-refundable ticket application fee? WTF?), or how inconsistent the 3-year-old crop is (different winners of every prep? YIKES!).

I have a feeling we will see some very good horses this year, not unlike 2007 – there is already a budding rivalry between Hansen and Union Rags, which I saw play out dramatically at the Breeders’ Cup. Sabercat is an intriguing contender, whom I also saw in-person at the Delta Jackpot. Then there’s Out Of Bounds, winner of the Sham stakes, a big, long-striding chestnut who could give the Darley powerhouse its first Derby win.

I am so excited! And it’s only January!

You can keep up with the Kentucky Derby 2012 contenders at Horse Racing Nation, and also take a look at the replays, interactive Derby trail and workout reports (all of which I help to collect and post!). And I will also comment here along the Derby trail, with stuff that won’t fit on HRN. As always, this is my own personal page, and I put on it what I want – I get no instructions from the Worldwide Headquarters.

Oaklawn opens Friday. I’m heading to Hot Springs on Saturday (weather permitting). Let’s get this Derby started 🙂

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Down The Stretch They Come

The RTIP, including me, with Mike Smith at the Symposium on Racing & Gaming. Phot0 by John Engelhardt

In two weeks, my great adventure out west will end with a 350 yard dash and a jubilant winner’s circle ceremony – Commencement!

I can’t believe it has been 2 years already!

I have completed my Race Track Industry Program courses, presented at the Symposium, consumed way too many cups of caramel-flavored coffee, cheered for cheap claimers at Rillito, banged on my apartment ceiling with a Swiffer handle to shut up (encourage?) my rowdy upstairs neighbors, lived in California, swam in the Pacific, survived a windstorm and an earthquake, baked 500 minicupcakes and met sooo many AWESOME people!

As for a career, I’m still looking, but I have several apps out, have had a few good interviews, and am waiting patiently for good news on a couple of options. I hope the next time I blog, I will have a great announcement to make, but until then, I’ll give you my KENTUCKY DERBY PRELIMINARY PICKS!!

As of today, I like these 5 horses, and they will be on all of my tickets:






I may add a longshot or two, like TWICE THE APPEAL (can’t ignore Bo-Rail), but these are my favorite 5 for the Run for the Roses!

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Filed under Brag sheet, career track, Handicapping, Kentucky Derby, Race Track Industry Program