Remembering a Champion: Gulch

By Rick Capone

Gulch-2aOn Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, news spread early from Old Friends, the Thoroughbred retirement farm in Georgetown, Kentucky, that Gulch, the oldest living Breeders' Cup winner, had been euthanized due to complications from cancer. He was 32 years old.

Intelligence. That is the quality that separates good horses from champions, Michael Blowen, founder and president of Old Friends, is fond of saying. Horses with a lot of intelligence are the ones to watch because they will become great champions.

Two horses Blowen says had a lot of intelligence are past Old Friends' retirees, Precisionist and Black Tie Affair. Now, sadly, Gulch is added to that list.

You could tell Gulch was an intelligent horse the moment he stepped off the van when he arrived at Old Friends. He had a spark in his eye and was completely aware of his surroundings. He held his head high in regal fashion, but he was not arrogant or mean spirited. Still, on his arrival that day, he was letting people know "I am here. I am a champion."

Gulch-3Gulch was loved by many people, which was evident by those who came to see him from all over the world. It is said he was Queen Elizabeth's favorite horse and she would visit him while staying at Lane's End farm whenever she came to Kentucky. Gulch was also a favorite of Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit. She had the opportunity to finally get to see him last Fall while on a road trip. The day she arrived, Gulch was getting an acupuncture treatment and she got to hold his lead while they were doing the procedure. It was a moment she says she will never forget. Gulch had a presence about him and almost everyone that got to see him while taking a tour of Old Friends would come away knowing they had seen greatness.

Gulch, who is by Mr. Prospector out of Jameela, by Rambunctions, was bred by Peter Brant in Kentucky and foaled on April 16, 1984. It goes without saying Gulch was a great racehorse. His numbers prove it, as he won 13 times and collected $3,095,521 in earnings in 32 starts. He also had eight seconds and four thirds.

As a 2-year old, his biggest wins came in the Hopeful Stakes (G1) and the Saratoga Special (G2), while as a 3-year old his biggest wins came in the Wood Memorial Stakes (G1) and the Metropolitan Handicap (G1), which he also won the following year. Then, as a 4-year old in 1988, Gulch became a champion, as he captured the biggest win of his career when he won the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs. With his Breeders' Cup Sprint victory, and his other wins in 1988, Gulch was awarded the Eclipse award as Champion Sprinter.

GulchbcAfter that win, Gulch was retired and stood at stud at Lane's End farm in Versailles from 1989 to 2009. There he sired a number of great champions, which included 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Thunder Gulch, as well as other Grade 1 winners such as Court Vision, Great Navigator, The Cliff's Edge and Wallenda, who is also a retiree at Old Friends.

Then in late 2009, Lane's End decided to retire Gulch. When Michael Blowen heard Lane's End was going to retire Gulch, he called the farm and politely asked if they might consider sending Gulch to Old Friends. "We’d really love to have Gulch at the farm," said Blowen. "He’s a star. He’d have a lot of fans. And, I know you’re going to take great care of him, but you’re a breeding operation and we’re a tourist operation and we could cater to his needs and his fans' needs and we’d just adore having him - I love the horse."

 Gulchie-2Blowen did not hear anything for a couple of weeks, and then got a call from Bill Sellers, assistant stallion manager at Lanes End. Sellers said he heard Blowen had made a request for Gulch and asked if he could come over and look at the farm. Blowen said yes, and later that afternoon Sellers arrived at Old Friends to look around.

According to Blowen, it could not have been a worse day at the farm. It was dreary. It had been raining a lot, so the fields and paddocks were muddy, the horses were muddy and even the barn cats were muddy. In addition, because of the bad weather, the farrier hadn't come out on time, so the horses also needed trims. It was just horrible and Blowen figured there was no way Lane's End would want to send Gulch to Old Friends.

So Blowen and Sellers hopped into a golf cart and went around the farm, and as they passed each paddock, Blowen told him the story about each horse. When the tour was over, and both men, now damp from the rain, got out of the cart, Sellers told Blowen that he was going to recommend to Mr. Farish that they send Gulch to Old Friends. Blowen was somewhat surprised because of how bad of a day it was, but then Sellers explained why.

He told Blowen that Lane's End had picked Gulch up the night he won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs, and brought him straight to the farm. From that time till now, Gulch hadn't had a spot of mud on him and he really believed that Gulch deserved to have some mud on him. So, because of that, Sellers was going to recommend to Mr. Farish that they should send Gulch to Old Friends...

Gulch2-FullSizeSure enough, just a few days later, a Lane's End horse van drove up the long driveway to the barn and Gulch was led off the trailer and into the paddock where he would begin his retirement at Old Friends. It was something to see, as Gulch stood tall and proud, surveying his new surroundings. Then he slowly began to trot around his paddock with his held head high, making sure everyone knew the champion had arrived.

He seemed to love the attention, which is something Farish noted in the Old Friends' press release at the time. "(Gulch) was a horse that was well known to the public, as a top 2-year-old that had been on the Triple Crown trail, that had gone on to become a Breeders Cup champion sprinter," he said. "He was a horse that people always wanted to see. Plus, he's kind of a ham, and he will enjoy the attention immensely." 

Over the years, Gulch lived in a number of paddocks at Old Friends. The last one he was in originally belonged to Fortunate Prospect, or "Grandpa" as he was nicknamed, who lived until he was 31. After Fortunate Prospect died, Gulch moved into it and lived to 32. It is becoming a very special paddock.

On a personal note, for three years I had the privilege of doing the afternoon feeding at Old Friends on weekends. I would begin my rounds near the end of the day, when tours were over and almost no one was around. It would be quiet, the sun would be getting low in the sky and I would go around the farm and feed all the horses by myself. As I got to each paddock, the horses would come up to the fence and then wait for me to put the feed in their buckets. Some would be patient, while others would do a dance to get my attention. It was fun to watch. As I poured the feed into the buckets, I'd say something to each horse, sometimes I'd get a nicker back, and other times they'd just chow down on their feed and stare at me as they chewed.

The last two paddocks on my route were Sarava, 2002 Belmont Stakes winner, and Gulch. Gulch, older and more patient, would slowly walk over to the fence, while Sarava, the impatient youngster, would pace up and down his fence line demanding to be served first. I'd feed Sarava first to calm him down. Then I'd go over to Gulch, who once again showed his intelligence in this simple moment. He knew that after I put the feed in his bucket, I'd top it off with a lot of carrots. He had come to learn that, by waiting patiently, he'd get a lot more carrots than the impatient youngster in the paddock across from him.

Gulch4After topping off his bucket, I'd just stand there in the quiet of the late afternoon; the only sounds to be heard were the two horses chewing, and birds chirping in the trees. There, as the setting sun's soft light fell all around, I'd lean against the fence and just watch Gulch enjoy his meal. As he ate, he would sometimes lift his head and look at me, with eyes that were so soft and welcoming. Those are special moments of Gulch I will always remember.

Gulch was a champion who earned the respect he received. He was also a horse with a sweet personality who made everyone he met feel special. He will certainly be missed. In the press release announcing his death, Blowen said it best when talking about the great champion and his first trainer.

"As Leroy Jolley, Gulch's first trainer once said, 'Gulch must be the toughest horse who ever lived,' and he was," said Blowen. "He was confident, self-possessed and regal. He didn't demand respect – he earned it. He is irreplaceable."

R.I.P Gulch (1984-2016)

Watch Gulch win the 1988 Breeders Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs Here