1995
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Thunder Gulch Is Electric
In Derby Shocker

By Andrew Beyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 7, 1995

LOUISVILLE, MAY 6 -- Trainer Wayne Lukas, who has been obsessed and often frustrated by his quest to win the Kentucky Derby, dominated it today. He saddled three horses, and Thunder Gulch, the most lightly regarded, scored a 24-to-1 upset in America's most famous race.

He did so after stalking Serena's Song, Lukas's filly, who sprinted to the lead and set a blistering early pace. Jockey Gary Stevens sent Thunder Gulch to the lead early in the stretch, and prevailed by 2 1/4 lengths over Tejano Run, as Lukas's more highly regarded colt, Timber Country, rallied to finish third.

One of the most successful thoroughbred trainers of all time, Lukas came to Churchill Downs with a 1-for-23 Derby record and the distinction of having run more losers than anyone in the race's history. He had exuded confidence this week about Timber Country and Serena's Song -- who were coupled in the wagering and favored -- but he barely mentioned Thunder Gulch, except to refer to him as the "stepchild" of his trio.

Yet almost as soon as the gate opened, it was apparent that the outsider was going to be a formidable presence in the 121st Derby. Even though he broke from the disadvantageous Post 16, Stevens managed to put him into optimal striking position throughout the race. He fully validated Lukas's judgment in asking him to fly here from Hong Kong for this assignment.

Serena's Song came out of the gate in high gear, and while Corey Nakatani appeared to have a strong hold of her, she sped the first quarter mile in 22 2/5 seconds over this lightning-fast Churchill Downs strip. Mike Smith deftly steered the Canadian champion Talkin Man to the rail at the first turn and put the 4-to-1 shot in perfect striking position behind the leader. And Stevens also managed to avoid the tactical pitfalls that might have befallen him in the 19-horse field.

"The colt broke very sharp, and after 50 yards out of the gate I got toward the inside," Stevens said. "I couldn't have imagined myself being in a better place. I was ecstatic."

As Serena's Song reached the half-mile mark in a swift 45 4/5 seconds and the six furlongs in 1:10 1/5, some of the speedsters chasing her faltered, but Talkin Man appeared a formidable presence on the rail just behind her. Thunder Gulch had been sitting in fifth place early and now moved up to third just outside the two leaders. As Talkin Man cut the corner and got past the filly, Stevens glanced over and figured that he was the one to beat. "I thought it was going to be a hard-fought battle in the stretch with Talkin Man," he said.

But at the moment Stevens asked Thunder Gulch for his decisive acceleration, Talkin Man faltered; he wound up finishing 12th. The filly was finished, too, struggling home 13th. And in the matter of a few strides, the 144,110 fans here saw that the outcome was no longer in doubt.

The winner covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:01 1/5. Although this was the fastest Derby since 1985, the time was not exceptional, because the Churchill Downs strip was as fast as it has ever been.

The second- and third-place finishers, Tejano Run and Timber Country, both gave good performances with their strong finishes. Behind them were the stretch-running Jumron, Mecke and Eltish.

Thunder Gulch earned $707,400 for his owner, Michael Tabor, a resident of Monaco who is a major shareholder in a group of betting shops throughout the United Kingdom.

Tabor said he had augmented his purse money in the Derby, betting both at home and Churchill Downs: "I had some sterling on it and I hadsome dollars on it."

While this was a grand triumph for the owner as well as for Stevens, who was winning his second Derby, it was principally a Lukas production. He has rebounded from a two-year slump to build his far-flung training operation into a juggernaut again. He had a stable full of good 3-year-olds this spring, and he moved them like chess pieces around the country.

He kept Timber Country at his home base in California; he won filly races in the West with Serena's Song before sending her to Kentucky to win the rich Jim Beam Stakes. He sent Thunder Gulch for the winter to Florida, where he scored impressive, hard-fought victories in both the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Florida Derby. He looked for a while as if he might be Lukas's principal Derby contender, but when he finished a dull fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, he became Lukas's forgotten horse. Next to his more glamorous stablemates, Lukas described him as a "blue collar worker."

But Lukas nevertheless thought enough of the colt's chances to seek the services of Stevens on the other side of the world. The jockey had been riding in Hong Kong this winter, but he came back home to win the Santa Anita Derby aboard Larry the Legend. When Larry the Legend was hurt, Stevens was available and eager. He admitted he was getting homesick and, he said, "I'd been thinking about the Derby."

So, too, had Lukas. Despite all of his successes, this race remains his preoccupation. When he came to the press box for the post-race news conference, he asked what was the all-time record for Derby victories by a trainer. Told it was six wins, by Ben Jones, Lukas said, "I hope my health holds up."

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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