LOUISVILLE — He was the first winner to go in the books on that rainy, raw afternoon at Churchill Downs 23 years ago and became the first Breeders' Cup champion ever anointed beneath the Twin Spires.
Two decades after putting the initial stamp on what is arguably considered the best the Breeders' Cup ever held, Gulch is now the lone living representative of an unprecedented day of greatness.
As much as the quarterback class of 1983 featuring John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly is held up as the standard in the NFL, the same could be said of the list of winners from the 1988 Breeders' Cup, the first of what is now a record eight editions of the event to be held at Churchill Downs.
Of the seven horses who were victorious that 50-degree day, Open Mind, Personal Ensign, Miesque, and Alysheba all went on to earn induction into the Hall of Fame, while Gulch earned an Eclipse Award that season in the wake of his victory in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
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With Miesque's passing earlier this year at the age of 27, Gulch — who lives at Old Friends Thoroughbred retirement facility after being pensioned from stud duty at Lane's End — stands as the only living member from the historic Class of '88.
"Everybody knows him," Michael Blowen, founder of Old Friends, said of Gulch. "We're getting a lot of people in who were actually there (in 1988), and ... he's been a remarkable tourist attraction."
Remarkable champions have won Breeders' Cup races before and since, but the single-day collection of talent on the Churchill track more than two decades ago might not ever be matched.
Not only did the racing world witness Alysheba's coronation as the Horse of the Year with his victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but they saw Miesque become the first to capture back-to-back Breeders' Cup races with her repeat win in the Mile. And Personal Ensign became the first horse in 80 years to retire undefeated and sound when she caught Winning Colors in the Distaff to complete her career 13-for-13.
"As much as I love the Kentucky Derby, the best day at the races I've ever experienced in my life was that Breeders' Cup in 1988," said John Asher, vice president of racing communications for Churchill Downs. "Top to bottom, everything that happened that day from Personal Ensign's race, which to me is still the most amazing race in Breeders' Cup history, to Alysheba closing out the day out in the dark ... for an entire day of racing, there is nothing in my mind like it."
Though it was lost in the shuffle, Gulch's victory in the Sprint was the first of what would be three Breeders' Cup wins for trainer D. Wayne Lukas that afternoon and completed the colt's transformation from solid handicap horse into champion speedster.
After previously being conditioned by LeRoy Jolley and notching Grade I wins in the Met Mile and Wood Memorial as a sophomore, Gulch was transferred to Lukas for his 4-year-old season and moved to sprint distances.
Despite suffering five straight losses at one point in the year, Gulch's three-quarter length victory in the Sprint ended up being his fourth graded-stakes win of the season — enough to earn him the Eclipse Award for champion sprinter.
"One of the things I observed is the Sprint, when you bring that many good fast horses together, it really compromises almost every one of them," Lukas said. "If they got here, they're usually laying 1-2-3 and, if you put them all in together, the pace gets pretty hot.
"I told (jockey) Angel Cordero don't let Gulch get up there; don't try and be with the leaders. Just lay back because the pace is going to be extremely hot, and that's what we did, and it worked."