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.
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.