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
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 stablemate. 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
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.''
When Thunder Gulch hooked the leader at the top of the lane, Krone
was arm-weary from trying to keep her horse from lugging out, and
Stevens knew he could take the lead. Krone kept pushing her colt
with a furious lefthanded whip, but Thunder Gulch drew clear when
Stevens asked him to move at the 16th pole.
As Thunder Gulch hit the wire, Lukas allowed himself a small smile
before heading for the track. All along the way, fans reached out
to shake his hand or slap his back. ``It surprised me a little
bit,'' Lukas said. ``I remembered Timber Country and thought, Holy
mackerel, we pulled it off anyhow.''
A Triple Crown with a double dip by a singular trainer. Surely
that will sate even Lukas's appetite for success -- at least until
it's time to gear up this year's 2-year-olds for next year's