A horrible faux pas was committed last Saturday at proper old Saratoga. An exceptional horse, maybe a great one, showed up for the $750,000 Travers Stakes and was greeted with a coolness that could be felt even in the 88� heat. In a place that sells its love for the thoroughbred at every boutique on Broadway, this behavior was as inexcusable as going facedown in the punch bowl at one of Marylou Whitney's parties.
What happened was this: When the fans who were jammed five deep around the walking ring got their first look at Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Thunder Gulch, they applauded politely and murmured dutifully. It was a far cry from last year, when Holy Bull was greeted as if he were the second coming of Secretariat.
The apathy didn't bother Thunder Gulch. Heck, not much bothers this horse when it's time for business—though a few minutes later a loud bang did cause him to rear in the starting gate and get off awkwardly. But, said jockey Gary Stevens, "he's such an athlete he needed only two strides to get back into it." Thunder Gulch surged to the lead at the top of the stretch and went on to a 4�-length victory in the 126th running of America's oldest race for 3-year-olds.
The victory, Thunder Gulch's sixth in eight starts this season, established him as the most accomplished 3-year-old colt of the decade and set up a showdown with Cigar, the 5-year-old handicap wonder, for Horse of the Year honors. It also led trainer D. Wayne Lukas to suggest he just might have something special. "Pull the records of some of the so-called 'great' 3-year-olds of the past and this horse's record is going to jump right out," he said.
Lukas has only himself to blame for empty seats on the Thunder Gulch bandwagon. Going into the Derby, Lukas said repeatedly that the colt was a cut below Timber Country, last year's 2-year-old champion, and the filly Serena's Song. Last week Lukas was still characterizing Thunder Gulch thusly: "He's a reserve quarterback in a lot of ways. He just keeps coming off the bench, getting the job done."
Those remarks came just before the Travers draw, at which Lukas announced that Timber Country was being retired with a torn tendon in his left foreleg. Even in absentia Timber Country stole the show.
It almost seemed that Thunder Gulch was slighted in stable assignments, too. He was so far from the main track that to get there, "We would have to come through the barn area, cross 40 acres of parking lot, cross Union Avenue and go through the picnic area," said Lukas. Thunder Gulch was merely bunking with the other Lukas horses, but the distance was so great that he came to the race in a van—"a limo," the trainer called it. The arrival was fashionably late. "They don't start a fight until the champion gets there," said Lukas.
Afterward the champion was led to the barn. No limo this trip, which was a good thing, because Thunder Gulch finally got his tribute. At every step the little colt was applauded. As the Spa's high-society crowds know, the rule of thumb for a distinguished guest is better late than never.