He was in a zone, and everything he did on every horse he rode turned out right, and who knew why? Maybe it had something to do with the bicycle that jockey Jerry Bailey had ridden to Gulfstream Park to avoid the traffic. Or maybe all his horses simply liked the cool, blustery weather that had the palm trees swaying and the flags snapping. Whatever the reason, Bailey booted home the winner in six of the first nine races on last Saturday's card, tying a track record for most wins on a single card.
The 37-year-old Bailey, who has won more than 3,000 races in his 20-year career, was so hot it seemed almost inevitable that he would win the $500,000 Florida Derby, the 10th race of the day. aboard Suave Prospect, the most accomplished of trainer Nick Zito's three-horse entry. But in the final few strides of the 1?-mile prep for the Kentucky Derby, Bailey's mount was overtaken by Thunder Gulch, a gritty little colt ridden by Mike Smith and trained by D. Wayne Lukas.
Thunder Gulch went off at 2-1, but Lukas admitted that Bailey's luck had him worried. "When Bailey got in that zone. I weakened," Lukas said. However, at the wire Thunder Gulch had a short nose ahead of Suave Prospect. The winning time was an unimpressive 1:49[3/5] on a track that was rated fast.
The victory means that Lukas, who has started at least one horse in every Kentucky Derby since 1981—and won the big race with the filly Winning Colors in 1988—now has two of the three leading contenders. Lukas regards Timber Country, last year's juvenile champion, as his No. 1 Derby prospect, even though that colt was third in his 3-year-old debut at Santa Anita earlier this month.
This Sunday in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, Timber Country will hook up for the first time with Afternoon Deelites, who is unbeaten in four career starts. Afternoon Deelites has replaced Timber Country as the Derby favorite in the Las Vegas books, a fact that greatly rankles Lukas. And had he heard Michael Tabor, who owns Thunder Gulch, talking after the Florida Derby, Lukas probably would have done a slow burn. "Afternoon Deelites could be an awesome horse—one of the alltime greats," Tabor said. Lukas has called Timber Country a "special horse" who has a shot to win the Triple Crown.
But just in case Afternoon Deelites versus Timber Country doesn't turn out to stir memories of Affirmed versus Alydar, as the hype emanating from California would have it, Kentucky Derby bettors might want to keep an eye on Thunder Gulch. Although he's small in stature, the chestnut son of Gulch has a big heart—literally, according to veterinary tests. Lukas describes him as having "a little chassis with a big engine," and indeed a large heart would increase his aerobic capacity and help in running the longer races. "I'm becoming a big fan of this horse," Lukas says. "He's going to get the [ Kentucky Derby's] mile and a quarter."
Lukas didn't take over Thunder Gulch until the colt had made four starts as a 2-year-old. The matchmaker was Demmy O'Byrne, an Irish vet who is friends with both Lukas and Tabor. First Tabor, a resident of Monaco who operates a string of betting parlors in England, told O'Byrne that he wanted to buy an American 2-year-old and race him in the U.S. Then, after O'Byrne picked out Thunder Gulch following those four early races, Tabor bought him in October, and O'Byrne persuaded Lukas to add the colt to his deep stable.
In Thunder Gulch's final two starts last year, he won the Remsen in New York and finished 6� lengths behind Afternoon Deelites in the Hollywood Futurity. "But it's unfair to say he lost by that much to Afternoon Deelites," Lukas contended before the Florida Derby. "I'd had him only a few weeks. That horse was not this horse."
After the Hollywood Futurity, Lukas gave the colt two months away from the races before shipping him to the East Coast for the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream on Feb. 18. Although he arrived only 40 hours before the race and had never raced on the track, Thunder Gulch proved that D. Wayne off the plane still is a scenario to be feared, as the horse gained a slim lead in the stretch and held off Suave Prospect's late charge for a nose victory.