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So what happened with Thunder Snow?

By Kellie Reilly

Two days after Thunder Snow bucked himself right out of the Kentucky Derby (G1) just yards out of the gate, we’re still left with several plausible theories, but no certain answers.

Maybe after hearing that he’d have to buck the stats against UAE Derby (G2) alumni in the Kentucky Derby, the Godolphin shipper took it literally!

But at least the previous dozen had put up a semblance of an effort. That’s the most devastating blow to trainer Saeed bin Suroor and the entire Godolphin team that had sounded so excited about the most accomplished Derby hope they’d ever fielded.

Of all the reasons why Thunder Snow could have been found wanting on the day – an inability to cope with high-class American speed; possibly getting away a beat slow, finding himself buried in the pack, and being unable to recover; just turning out to be much better on turf than dirt at this level; or seeing something that caused him to jink in the stretch as he did at Meydan – throwing it away with a rodeo impression wasn’t on the short list.

Once the word came back that Thunder Snow was thankfully unhurt, an initial theory was an equipment problem, which would account for a horse in discomfort reacting that way:

Yet Thunder Snow’s connections have had ample time to cite that as the cause, and they haven’t.

Although “arguments from silence are never convincing,” as my ancient history professor used to say, Godolphin has every reason to pin it on an external cause, something that puts the colt in a better light. If it were a saddle slippage, girth too tight, etc., the story would be “poor Thunder Snow, he never had a fair chance.”

The very fact that they’re not blaming it on equipment – to their credit – strikes me as a significant sign that Thunder Snow was the responsible party.

Daragh O’Donohoe, his exercise rider who had been a jockey himself, expressed his perplexity on Twitter Saturday night:

On Sunday, Godolphin chief executive John Ferguson was just as mystified in an interview at Newmarket.

“The horse is fine and it was just one of these things – they’re not machines,” Ferguson said in a Racing Post report.

“He trained so well out there and he’s a beautiful character at home. He jumped plunging out of the stalls and was pulled up after 50 yards – you can imagine a two-year-old doing that having his first start, but a horse who’s won Group races at Meydan in Dubai and won in France and England? Everyone will have a theory but we’ll probably never know what happened.”

So unless Thunder Snow telepathically communicates with a spokesman, we’re left with piecing together the scraps from video, photos, and the educated surmise of horsemen.

Sid Gustafson, DVM, hypothesized that Thunder Snow was reacting to the unfamiliar sensation of slop hitting his abdomen:

That’s another logical explanation, although it’s not strictly accurate since the UAE Derby was contested on a muddy track. Admittedly, it was not the same degree of wet slop as at Churchill, so the larger point can’t be discounted.

The sensation may have been exacerbated by the whole sensory overload of the Derby experience.

The roar hitting his ears from the grandstand could have been a contributing factor, as relayed by Steve Byk, for example:

Mahmood al Zarooni tweeted his surmise that it was the sound of the starting gate bell that alarmed him. (If his name rings a bell, he’s the former Godolphin trainer currently banned for giving some of his horses anabolic steroids).

Retired jockey-turned-commentator Richard Migliore thinks it was his sight, not hearing, that triggered him: “It appeared to me that Thunder Snow reacted negatively to the reflection and shine off of the sealed” track, “Mig” wrote in his review for americasbestracing.net.

Whatever the underlying cause, Thunder Snow’s unhinged behavior reminded some observers of his sire Helmet’s propensity for throwing a curveball. As mentioned in the “Tale from the Crib” on Thunder Snow, Helmet veered abruptly across the track in the Champagne (G1) at Randwick.

International racing journalist Fanny Salmon was inspired to combine clips of Helmet and Thunder Snow:

Thunder Snow hadn’t done anything remotely this egregious on track before. His wandering around in the UAE Derby nearly cost him the race, but could have been taken as a sign of greenness, or still getting there mentally. He recollected himself in time anyway.

My own pet theory is that he may have had a hard time getting traction in the Churchill slop in those first few strides, lost confidence, then fell apart. The video, for me at least, didn’t help a lot, but a series of pictures of the start got me wondering along these lines.

Thanks to Coady Photography’s images, we can see that the rest of the Derby field exhibits forward propulsion. Many are rearing, almost like classically inspired equine statues, and the rest are leaning forward. Taking the series in totality, Thunder Snow strikes me as the only horse who looks tentative, even as he’s breaking with the field. He is not leaving the gate with the same authority, as his footwork looks almost diffident across several images (photos cropped for maximum view of him).

 

 

 

Maybe that’s derived from the whole occasion getting to him, or maybe he’s not feeling his usual ability to attack the surface, which might account for his body language in the first few photos.

Then once Thunder Snow starts losing his action and hopping, Christophe Soumillon has no chance of keeping centered in the saddle. Once Soumillon necessarily becomes unbalanced, an already unnerved Thunder Snow panics, and the bucking bronco routine ensues. As others have pointed out, Soumillon’s horsemanship really shone as he stayed aboard and maintained enough control until outrider Greg Blasi arrived on the scene.

After the initial fears that he’d been hurt subsided, I still felt awful for Godolphin. It wasn’t only the bitter disappointment of their hopes being dashed. It was also the gnawing fact that Thunder Snow had given up a tilt at Saturday’s 2000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket to try the Kentucky Derby instead.

Thar’s why Thunder Snow wasn’t confirmed for the Derby until exactly one week before, on April 29. He had classic options in Europe. The longer it took to make the decision official, the more I started to think that maybe Sheikh Mohammed wanted another crack at European champion Churchill, representing the rival Coolmore empire, in the Guineas. Thunder Snow had been beaten only two lengths by Churchill in last October’s Dewhurst (G1), and since then, he’d won three straight.

Had he gone to Newmarket, an improved, and race-fit, Thunder Snow would have met Churchill coming straight off the bench. But with Thunder Snow chasing the Kentucky Derby, Godolphin’s Guineas hopes centered on the promising but less experienced Barney Roy. As it turned out, Barney Roy was beaten only a length by Churchill despite stumbling into the “Dip.” That doesn’t imply that Thunder Snow could have reversed form with Churchill himself, but as a proven commodity peaking at the moment, chances are he might have done better than Barney Roy. We’ll never know for sure.

So Thunder Snow’s flop isn’t simply a case of a bold gesture gone awry, in which case it would be easy to say no harm, no foul. Since Godolphin passed on the Guineas in hopes of fulfilling a Kentucky Derby dream, it must sting all the more for them.

Despite the woeful record of UAE Derby alumni in the Kentucky Derby, Thunder Snow definitely fit on paper. Compare the case of Master of Hounds, still the best-performing UAE Derby alum when fifth in the 2011 Derby. If Aidan O’Brien’s Master of Hounds, who had just missed to the filly Khawlah at Meydan, could finish fifth behind the likes of Animal Kingdom, ill-fated Nehro, Mucho Macho Man, and Shackleford, why couldn’t Thunder Snow do at least as well in an open-looking Derby with few major players?

Thunder Snow earned his way in, whether you go by the current system of accumulating points in designated scoring races, or hearken back to the old “graded earnings” rule,. His European juvenile form was top-notch, through Churchill, and culminated in a dominant performance in the Criterium International (G1).

Even if you want to blot out his turf accomplishments as inadmissible evidence, his two-for-two mark on the Meydan dirt made him a worthy combatant. If you want to ignore his UAE 2000 Guineas (G3) romp as proving little in the way of form, his UAE Derby score is legitimate. He had a much wider trip than front-running Epicharis, almost ruined his own chance, and still got up to beat a high-quality Japanese colt who’s gunning for the Belmont (G1). The third-place finisher, Todd Pletcher’s Master Plan, had previously been second by a length to his Tampa Bay Derby (G2)-winning stablemate Tapwrit (sixth in the Derby), and is another on the Belmont trail. O’Brien’s Lancaster Bomber, a good fourth after a wretched trip in the UAE Derby, just ran fourth again to stablemate Churchill in Newmarket’s 2000 Guineas, and is reportedly in the mix for the Preakness (G1).

All of which is to say that Thunder Snow had merited his place in the Derby line-up. Obviously, assessing his chances, as handicappers and horseplayers, is a different question. As much as I want to note their positive attributes, you’d have every right to toss a horse coming via Dubai until the 0-for-13 stat in the Derby is remedied. That’s totally fair to adopt a “prove it to me” posture as long as the streak of futility continues. But it wouldn’t be fair to deny that a horse the caliber of Thunder Snow deserved his chance, even if he ended up making a hash of it.

Continue to Part II for the analysis by equine behavior expert Kerry Thomas of THT Bloodstock

All photos cropped from larger pictures courtesy Churchill Downs/Coady Photography