Strong As Thunder, Gentle As Snow

From time immemorial, the human kind has been savoring competition. No matter what sport it was, many would joust for the title of the very best but only one could ever have it, until that one is also superseded by another, younger competitor. As generations shift, the sieve of the ages filters out all the mediocre, leaving us with just a few names worthy of being written into the almanac of records with a golden ink. These names gleam like finely polished jewels, stowed away in the vaults of history to be cherished by all the seekers of beauty to come. Very rarely do we get to see one of these superb competitors as they achieve the impossible, let alone two years in a row.

Perfection That Defies Logic

It’s a special privilege to be able to witness a paragon in a sport giving out a mesmerizing display of prowess that leaves us breathless, dumbfounded and questioning our sense of reality. Awestruck and with mouth agape, we look but can’t believe our own eyes. Did that just happen? How did it happen? When will it happen again? There’s no other explanation for such a feat than that it’s a defiance of the very laws of physics, a challenge to the established order of things that only the very best can even attempt. One of these competitors, paragons and challengers is Thunder Snow.

No matter how many superlatives we heap onto Thunder Snow, he can bear them all with unflinching grace. Arriving to the stage with a trot, winning with a gallop and then retiring with a canter, Thunder Snow has shown the amazing journey of a horse from obscurity to renown.

Fiery Beauty In Motion

It was on March 25, 2017 that I first heard about Thunder Snow. I was in Dubai with Katerina, witnessing Arrogate stumble heavily out of the gate but carry onward to win the Dubai World Cup. Thunder Snow also won a race, though his was the UAE Derby, a prestigious but unpredictable race for 3-year-olds who haven’t competed between them. Coming from behind, neck to neck against Epicharis, Thunder Snow eked out a win as the crowd cheered, cried and shouted in excitement. This win was crucial for Thunder Snow, as it nominated him to run the Kentucky Derby.

Two months later, I was rooting for Thunder Snow at the Kentucky Derby, where our paragon started bucking and kicking after the break and was pulled up. This was unusual and unexpected since he’s considered a horse that’s easy to train and be around. Something must have bothered him that day, leading to plenty of people snickering at his behavior and making half-witted jokes.

I later found out that Thunder Snow’s behavior that morning was exceptional, floating over the track without a fault. It appears the sloppy, wet track with standing water led to an awkward break from stall two, which made Thunder Snow buck and kick. I have no idea if that’s what happened but that’s the best explanation I can think of. Personally, I felt annoyed and exasperated as was I expecting to see him in action.

For the next race, Thunder Snow was sent off to French Chantilly Racecourse, where he effortlessly won in the straight, finishing by over one length from the runner-up. Later that year, Thunder Snow will compete without impressing but I knew he had it in him and I wished to see Thunder Snow win a major race. My wish will come true in Dubai World Cup 2018 and 2019.

The Champion of Meydan

After spending the winter in Dubai, Thunder Snow began by challenging all three rounds of the Al Maktoum series, finishing second, first and second. Another heavy-hitter, North America, was always finishing close by, suggesting a duel between the two but life tends to throw us a twist from time to time. I was back in Dubai for the 2018 World Cup, expecting a magnificent performance from Thunder Snow – and I got it.

Thanks to the early pace setter, North America, not breaking well, Thunder Snow took the early lead, got in front and won in style by five lengths. The heavily favored US horse, West Coast, was given a resounding defeat by the Irish veteran, who was catapulted into the racing stratosphere. Contrary to all expectations, Thunder Snow overcame the wide post position and won thanks to the tremendous second wind in the second half of the race, showing that he undoubtedly relishes the Meydan track and a big stage.

Dubai World Cup 2018
West Coast with J. Castellano on board, trained by B. Baffert

Thunder Snow’s jockey, Christophe Soumillon, said he never imagined being able to make that running with that draw, but the horse jumped quite well and there were no challengers on the inside. Once Christophe saw West Coast let him go at the first corner, Thunder Snow pricked his ears and had a good blow. Christophe added that Thunder Snow is just amazing when he wants to go but at times he can get it in his head that we doesn’t want to do something.

“Winning this is like a dream come true,” said Soumillon.

Galloping To Glory

After winning in Dubai World Cup 2018, Thunder Snow took a four-month break and competed at York  in August but seemed uninterested in the race, finishing last of eight. In September, it was the Belmont Park where he narrowly finished second; in November, he competed in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and again almost finished second.

It was the last Saturday in March 2019 that Katerina and I visited Dubai again for the World Cup. With North America bursting right out of the gates, Thunder Snow stalked with relentless pace. Gronkowski took the lead and Thunder Snow fell behind to the third position, making me worry that he might not be ready to challenge.

Usurping the Throne

Gronkowski is a big, mightily fast horse with a lot of heart, foaled in 2015 and named after Rob Gronkowski, a New England Patriots player and a minority stakeholder. In the 2018 Belmont Stakes, Gronkowski finished second and that was the case here as well – Thunder Snow won by the skin of his teeth.

Dubai World Cup 2019
Gronkowski with O. Murphy on board, trained by S. bin Ghadayer

I watched Thunder Snow in the home straight going for the lead and the camera dropped from my hands. 2019 marked the fourth consecutive year I’ve been to Dubai World Cup, capturing all the races with the dispassionate eye of the observer but this time I could feel there’s something different. I lost track of what I should be doing and just savored that historical moment.

As I’m writing this, I still feel the tension, the raw emotion, the cries of joy and disbelief and the deafening roar of the crowd as Thunder Snow approached the finish line and won the race. This was hands down the best horse race I’ve ever seen, topping what I saw Arrogate do. The thrill of the race was palpable as the two mighty beasts stretched their necks as far as they could and mustered all the strength in them. Just by looking at the photo finish, you can see that Gronkowski is way bigger than Thunder Snow and that mere inches decided the winner.

I could sense that this was no ordinary horse I witnessed in action; Thunder Snow was something quite exceptional, a horse that is born once every hundred generations or more. The fact I was blessed to witness him win such a prestigious race as Dubai World Cup twice meant I’d be able to tell this amazing story to the entire world. And what a story it is.

Primal Power Meets Wisdom

The wisdom of his jockey and trainer combined with the primal power of Thunder Snow produced a remarkable inspiration to millions of worldwide fans, bringing them an unparalleled inspiration. Thunder Snow is worth of poems, which is why his owner and the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, composed one for him and  and posted it on his Instagram. In part, it says,

Honored is the horse on this land and victorious

Whence every horse aspires to be glorious

A joyous celebration, year after year

Where the world’s best meet, from far and near”.

After winning his second Dubai World Cup, a feat no horse has ever accomplished, it was time to recount the impressions.

Interview For the Annals

Soumillon admitted that the 2019 Dubai World Cup win was much more demanding than the one in 2018. This time around, Soumillon looked more like a Cheltenham jump jockey rather than an American style one, but that’s what it took to get Thunder Snow going. However, he received a visit from both Thunder Snow’s trainer, Saeed bin Suroor, and Sheikh Mohammed, before the race in the paddock, both giving him a vote of confidence.

“I’ll have to come back next year!” Soumillon added.

I expected to see Thunder Snow on Saturday, November 2, in the Breeders Cup Classic, but plans often change with little to no notice and I got word of his retirement. I’m wistful about the missed races but I’m still glad that my other favorite horses, namely Vino Rosso, went on to win the Cup and McKinzie ended up second.

Paying homage to the monumental achievements Thunder Snow has accomplished on the track seems par for the course. Winning the Dubai World Cup twice in a row is one-in-a-million feat that should be celebrated, cherished and, most of all, immortalized. I look forward to seeing the continuation of his bloodline in my other Dubai trips. Thanks for the all the wonderful memories, champ!

Meteoric Trailblazing With a Heart

After having a high temperature in late October 2019, Thunder Snow never came back to the track, to much dismay from fans all around the world. On November 5, 2019, Thunder Snow was officially announced as retired and the homebred champion went into history as the first horse ever to win a Dubai World Cup twice and also do it back-to-back.

Trainer Saeed bin Suroor called Thunder Snow a superstar, stating that he was always easy to train,  very professional, very tough and tried the best he could in everything he did, adding that Thunder Snow is retiring at the top of his performance to become a top stallion in the coming years.

“We will all miss him at Godolphin Stables,” said bin Suroor.

Supreme Confidence and Excellence

Rated as the best 2-year-old colt in France in 2016 after trouncing the competition by full five lengths in Criterium International at Saint-Cloud that year, Thunder Snow has a track record of 24-8-7-4, winning $16.5mm in prize money in total. More importantly, he won over our hearts and minds with his ingenious performance that made all of us who had the chance to see him in action grateful for being a part of history that was worthy of being written with a golden ink in the almanac of records.

What Thunder Snow has accomplished was instill faith in the hearts of fans, making them realize miracles are possible when we least expect them. All it takes is a bit of confidence and not looking behind us as we speed towards the finish line. But, Thunder Snow also showed the cynics and headshakers that the established norms mean nothing in the face of new generations that will happily dismantle them.

Soaring On the Wings of Greatness

The true greatness of Thunder Snow will only be understood once we’ve gotten some historical perspective, the same one that lets us sift through the mediocre competitors to see the genuine brilliance of veritable champions. As time goes on, Thunder Snow’s accomplishments will shine brighter and brighter from underneath the veil of time that inevitably cover everything done by man and beast alike.

Thunder Snow has a bright future ahead of him, one where he breeds fruitfully, passing on his genes and stamina to next generations of challengers, some of which might appear in the Dubai World Cup to challenge his record. In that way, the zest, the passion and the fervor that characterize all the most abundantly praised champions are snatched out from underneath the all-consuming millstone of time and reborn in the next generation that eagerly trots onto the big stage to challenge the records of ages past.

Dubai World Cup 2019 Gallery

Dubai World Cup 2018 Gallery

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