At 10:20 on the eve of last Saturday's 127th running of the Belmont Stakes, the overhead light was flicked on in stall 17 of Belmont Park's Barn 10, revealing a sleepy-eyed colt languishing in the straw. In the dim glow his reddish coat looked burnished. "I don't want to disturb you, big boy," trainer D. Wayne Lukas crooned softly to Thunder Gulch, his Kentucky Derby winner. "You've got to carry the whole load tomorrow."
After dousing the light, Lukas climbed into his rental car and headed toward his hotel. On the way he stopped for an ice cream, and he ordered a cherry-vanilla cone, a double dip. "Seems like a logical way to end the day that you scratch the Belmont favorite," the 59-year-old trainer said, with more than a trace of irony.
A double dip, of course, was what Lukas had hoped to throw at his 10 rivals on Saturday afternoon in the third leg of the Triple Crown. However, at about 5 p.m. Friday, less than an hour after he had won the prestigious Mother Goose Stakes with the filly Serena's Song, Lukas called the press box to announce that Timber Country, his long-striding Preakness winner, would be scratched because of fever.
Big crisis, right? Not if you're D. Wayne Lukas in the charmed spring of 1995. On an overcast afternoon, a crowd of 37,171—the smallest to attend a Belmont since the track began keeping attendance records in 1958—watched Thunder Gulch take up the slack for his stable-mate. Thunder Gulch galloped to the lead in mid-stretch and pulled away from the tiring Star Standard for a two-length victory in 2:32 for the mile and a half, the slowest winning Belmont time since 1970.
The victory made Lukas the first trainer to sweep the Triple Crown in the same year with different horses. He is also the first to win five straight Triple Crown races, going back to Tabasco Cat's 1994 Preakness victory. Said Nick Zito, the trainer whose horses have run second to Lukas in three of those five races, "I guess I'll have to get Pegasus to beat him. What he's done is tremendous, unbelievable."
It is even more unbelievable considering Lukas did it without Timber Country, last year's 2-year-old champion. Although he might have gambled that the colt's temperature would go down by Saturday morning, Lukas opted to treat him immediately with an anti-inflammatory drug. That meant he had to scratch the colt from the Belmont, because horses taking such medication are not allowed to race in New York. By late Friday night, even as Lukas was eating his ice cream, Timber Country was cleaning the bottom of his feed tub, his fever already coming down.
"It's a criminal shame that he'll miss this race," Lukas said that night. "But there's no sense in crying over it. We've got to start thinking about getting the other one ready to run."
The other one. It has been Thunder Gulch's plight to be relegated to that status all spring. Even after Thunder Gulch won the Derby at odds of 24-1—an incredible overlay for a Florida Derby winner—Lukas still believed that the better horse was Timber Country, a fast-closing third in the Derby. Gary Stevens, Thunder Gulch's jockey, disagreed, even after running third behind Timber Country in the Preakness. "I was looking forward to a rematch, because it would have been a great show," Stevens said.
In the absence of Timber Country the savvy New York bettors made the Derby winner—and the only contestant who had run in both that race and the Preakness—a 3-2 favorite over what was probably the weakest Belmont field in years. After the grind of the first two Triple Crown races, a fresh horse can have a significant advantage in the Belmont, but Thunder Gulch was the only multiple-stakes winner in the race and was clearly the class of this field.
Even so, when the race began Lukas's optimism was shaken as he watched jockey Julie Krone gun Star Standard from his outside post to the lead, then wisely guide him through dawdling fractions of :24 2/5 for a quarter, :50 1/5 for a half, and 1:15 1/5 for six furlongs. "He needs to get in the race right now," Lukas said as the field galloped past the half-mile mark. "C'mon up there, Gary.... He's giving [Star Standard] an awful long time to sit there.... This is a bad deal."