At 5:38 p.m. last Saturday, a balding English bookmaker named Michael Tabor hastily descended a set of clubhouse stairs at Churchill Downs and burst through the doors leading to the racetrack's ancient interior. Throwing his arms in the air, Tabor beckoned to the heavens.
"What a racehorse!" cried Tabor. "This is unbelievable...."
With the frantic look of a sharpie who has just cracked the Churchill safe and is making off with the loot, Tabor led a small entourage of Irish, English and American accomplices down the broad clubhouse corridors. Past the bars and pari-mutuel windows. Past the patrons raising glasses in toast. Past the horse-players shouting encouragement. At last, at the bottom of a long staircase leading to the track, Tabor floated into the yellowing sunlight of this first Saturday in May and into the arms of David Lambert, a thoroughbred consultant and fellow Brit.
"You've done it!" Lambert yelled. "You've won the Darby. You've won the Kentucky Darby...."
Just three minutes earlier—in an ending that stunned the second-highest alltime crowd of 144,110 and left even the winning trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, walking around in a daze—Tabor's bright little chestnut colt, Thunder Gulch, charged to the lead off the last turn, dug in dutifully for the final 300 yards and raced off to win the 121st running of the Kentucky Derby by 2� lengths. It was, in the end, a Derby that belonged to a forgotten horse, a colt who simply got lost in Lukas's hype of his two more-favored 3-year-olds, Serena's Song and Timber Country, and was so overlooked at the windows that he paid $51 to win on a $2 bet, the second-longest price on the board. It was also a Derby that belonged to an owner who, in his first purchase of a thoroughbred to run in America, shelled out $500,000 last year for this son of Gulch before he had ever won a stakes race. And it belonged to jockey Gary Stevens, who was free to take the ride only because his scheduled mount, Larry the Legend, suffered an injury following their Santa Anita Derby victory on April 8.
"I don't know why things happen the way they do, but you don't ask questions," Stevens said after the race. "This horse caught me by surprise."
Indeed, among the few whom Thunder Gulch did not fool on Saturday were Tabor and some of his associates, who were crowing that they left the Derby betting windows in radiant health. But Tabor was not the first owner to gamble on this colt. In July 1993, at the Keeneland sales in Kentucky, two Florida-based horsemen, Jerry Bailey and Ken Ellenberg, purchased him as a yearling for $40,000. The two men are what is known as "pin-hookers": That is, they buy horses early in their development, hold on to them until they mature, then try to resell them for a profit. Nine months after buying Thunder Gulch, Bailey and Ellenberg entered the colt, still unraced, in a 2-year-old-in-training sale at Keeneland. They put a reserve of $125,000 on the colt—a way of declaring that they would take no less—and got him back when he failed to fetch that price.
They were gambling that the colt would continue in training and show some ability at the races. "There's a lot of money in selling horses off the racetrack that have performed well," Ellenberg says. Thunder Gulch soon did just that. He won for the first time—in only his second race—last Oct. 4 at Belmont, then showed he was a baby of some quality 19 days later with a second-place finish in the Cowdin, his first stakes race, at Aqueduct. His price soared, and among those who came sniffing around was Demi O'Byrne, a veterinarian from Tipperary, Ireland, who had been asked by Tabor to search these shores for a racehorse he might purchase. Tabor, who operates 120 betting shops in the United Kingdom, knows the gambling game, and he wanted to get in on the U.S. action. "I love America, and I wanted to race a horse here," Tabor says. So O'Byrne approached Lambert to begin a search on Tabor's behalf.
"Do you know of any promising young horse that is suitable?" he asked. Lambert tipped him off to Thunder Gulch, and over lunch at Aqueduct on Nov. 11, the day the colt was to run in the Nashua Stakes there, O'Byrne hammered out the deal to buy the colt for Tabor. Four hours after the transaction was completed, Thunder Gulch ran a dull fourth for his new owner. "I felt like an idiot," Tabor says. O'Byrne was equally sick. "He was a failure," O'Byrne says of Thunder Gulch, and advised Tabor to put the horse under Lukas's tutelage. Fifteen days later he won the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. "Now I was a genius," Tabor says.
Not for long. Lukas moved Thunder Gulch to California, where he promptly finished second to Afternoon Deelites in the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 18, losing by nearly seven. That result prompted Lukas to dispatch the colt to Florida, where Mike Smith pushed him to narrow victories at Gulfstream Park in the Feb. 18 Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby three weeks later. The victories were encouraging, but Lukas already had two of the best 3-year-olds in training—Timber Country, last year's 2-year-old champion, and the extremely fast filly Serena's Song—and since he had picked them out of yearling sales himself, he had considerably more pride wrapped up in their careers. After Timber Country got whipped in his first two 1995 starts, a testy Lukas allowed as how "I'm becoming a real big fan of Thunder Gulch," but he went on to say that Timber Country was "a special horse," one with a chance at the Triple Crown.