SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y., Aug. 20 -- No sooner did Thunder Gulch cross the finish line to win the Travers Stakes than the controversy about his true status in racing history began to rage. By winning Saturday's 126th running of the Grade I, $750,000 Travers, Thunder Gulch joined a select group of champions. Thunder Gulch became only the second Kentucky Derby winner in the last 50 years to win the Travers and the fourth horse in history to win the Derby, Belmont Stakes and Travers. The others were Shut Out (1942), Whirlaway (1941) and Twenty Grand (1931). Trainer D. Wayne Lukas pointed out after the race that Thunder Gulch also became the only horse to win both the Swaps in California and the Travers after competing in the Triple Crown. 'If I had to use one word to describe the race,' said Lukas, 'it would be 'super.' I don't know what else you can do -- he did everything asked of him.' The knock against Thunder Gulch is that he is beating up inferior horses in unimpressive times, making comparisons to champions of yesteryear a mockery. Thunder Gulch drew away from Pyramid Peak in the final quarter despite running the distance in a pokey :26 1-5. 'The track was a little dead yesterday,' track handicapper Richard McCarthy said Sunday, 'but it's safe to say that any of the other three horses who won the Travers after winning the Derby and Belmont would beat Thunder Gulch by a long margin.
It's not his fault that this is the worst group of three-year-olds to come along in a while, but that is the fact.' Nevertheless, Thunder Gulch was able to sidestep Saratoga's notorious legend as 'the graveyard of favorites' by winning the Travers. 'Reading about all the favorites and champions who have lost here at Saratoga, this was an emotional win,' said jockey Gary Stevens. 'Once he sticks his head in front, he doesn't lose. As far as this whole year, it's been a fairy tale for me.' Lukas is unfazed by criticism of Thunder Gulch, as any trainer whose charge racked up the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, Belmont, Swaps and Travers in the same year has a right to. 'I think he's one of the best three-year-olds in a long time,' said Lukas. 'You're going to have to go back in the record books a long way to find one who's done what he's done.' Lukas will have a chance to dispell any doubts about Thunder Gulch's quality this fall. The three-year-old races of consequence have run their course, and now Thunder Gulch will have to take on older horses. If he can beat current handicap champion Cigar in the Woodward Stakes on Sept. 16 at Belmont Park, Thunder Gulch will be the favorite to be named Horse of the Year. Lukas said he would not duck Cigar this fall. When asked about a possible Woodward showdown, he replied 'So be it.'