Steady 'Thunder' wins slow Belmont

June 11, 1995|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

ELMONT, N.Y. -- The slowest Belmont Stakes in 25 years was still fast enough yesterday to secure a Triple Crown record for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

Thunder Gulch, the so-called "blue collar understudy" in Lukas' barn, assumed the favorite's role after his more dazzling but virus-stricken stablemate, Timber Country, was forced out of the race.

The gritty little chestnut, dubbed "Mighty Mouse" by Team Lukas, didn't disappoint, giving Lukas his fifth consecutive victory in a Triple Crown race.

"All of this fell on this little horse's shoulders," Lukas said.

Thunder Gulch's time of 2 minutes, 32 seconds was eight seconds off Secretariat's track mark and faster only in recent history than the 2:34 it took High Echelon in 1970.

Part of the reason was the extremely slow early fractions set by Julie Krone on Star Standard, and the quality of the 11-horse field, nearly half of which had not won a stakes race. Star Standard was timed in 24 2/5 for the first quarter, 50 1/5 for the half, 1:15 1/5 for three-quarters and 1:40 for the mile.

Thunder Gulch ran only as fast as he had to to win, "really a sprint from the three-eighths pole to the wire," said his jockey, Gary Stevens.

Not that the 1 1/2 -mile race was without its dramatic moments, mostly caused by Krone trying to steer a straight course with the veering, seemingly ill-tempered Star Standard, whom Krone said might have tried to reach over and bite" Thunder Gulch in the stretch.

Lukas termed it "a dogfight" as the two horses battled from the top of the stretch to about the sixteenth pole, where Thunder Gulch pulled away, winning by two lengths.

If it was a dogfight, it was a sluggish one.

"The first little scare I had was when I picked up the Racing Form [yesterday] morning and saw some quotes where Krone said [trainer] Nick Zito told her to make a left-hand turn coming out of the gate and head for the rail," said Stevens, who broke from the 10th post position, immediately inside of Star Standard.

"Well, that's what she did.

"I had to steady my horse off Star Standard's heels. Then midway down the backside, her horse was lugging out severely."

At that point, Stevens and Thunder Gulch were third, lapped just behind and to the outside of the pace-setting Star Standard, who was being stalked by Wild Syn.

"After the race, Julie apologized for coming out at that point," Stevens said. "She told me she had a cramp in her left arm and had to take a breather. When she did, the horse came out. Then around the turn, she was still involved in her own personal little war with her horse. At the three-eighths pole, her arm gave out on her again and her horse came out and bumped me pretty good. It was hard enough where I would have claimed foul and she could have been taken down if she had won. Actually, though, it might have been a blessing. Thunder Gulch is a little slow sometimes to pick up his right lead, and that bump made him switch."

Krone, who became the only woman jockey to win a Triple Crown race in the 1993 Belmont on Colonial Affair, only acknowledged after the race that Star Standard "was trying to get out a little."

After the bumping incident, Thunder Gulch drew off to a $H two-length victory, the first Kentucky Derby winner since Swale in 1984 to also win the Belmont Stakes.

Star Standard hung on for second, the fourth Belmont Stakes runner-up saddled by Zito.

Citadeed, who looked uncomfortable being rated off the front-runners by Eddie Maple, lacked a closing kick in the stretch, and finished third. Second choice Off'N'Away, the Irish colt, was fractious being loaded into the gate. He broke slowly and finished sixth. Wild Syn ran similarly to his last-place Kentucky Derby effort. He stalked the pace and finished last once again.

Colonial Secretary, based at the Fair Hill Training Center in Cecil County with trainer Gene Weymouth, finished ninth.

Thunder Gulch earned $415,440 and increased his career winnings to $1,907,586, most of which he has earned for Michael Tabor, who bought the colt last fall for a reported $500,000.

Lukas said he was "a little bit overwhelmed" at having "the great opportunity to win five classics. I feel very good about it. It didn't really hit me though until I was walking through the crowd to the winner's circle. I became emotional, and I was surprised at my reaction. It got to me . . . and obviously it means a lot.

"I have said titles are a way of keeping score, and my outfit is comprised of a lot of highly-motivated people. My owners, like Bill Young, Mike Tabor and Bob Lewis, are all self-made men and appreciate this quality. They are the ones that have put me in this ultimate position."

Lukas said Timber Country's fever has subsided and the horse could return to training in a few days.

He plans to separate the horses, sending Thunder Gulch to the West Coast to run in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park in July and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August.

Timber Country will remain on the East Coast and be pointed for the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont on July 2.

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