Underappreciated Horse Racing Stars of the 1980s: Chief’s Crown, Gulch, and Cozzene

Gulch, 1987 Metropolitan Handicap, Coglianese Photos
Gulch winning the 1987 Metropolitan Handicap as a 3-year-old. (Coglianese Photos)

In the early 20th century, the coalescence of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes into the American Triple Crown changed how we regard 3-year-olds year in and year out. In the 1980s, John Gaines proposed a new event for racing, a one-day, seven-race card that would serve as an end-of-the-year championship. The goal was to attract horses from not just the United States, but Canada, Europe, Japan, and beyond. In the 40 years since, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships have become just that; much like the Triple Crown classics, winning a Breeders’ Cup race can define a horse’s career.

In the 1980s, as the Breeders’ Cup started its climb in prestige, Chief’s Crown, Gulch, and Cozzene were among its earliest winners, each making their wins highlights of careers that included multiple graded stakes and a lasting impact on the sport through their sons and daughters.

Chief’s Crown (1982-1997)

How does a stallion with only three wins to his name come to stand at Claiborne Farm, the stalwart breeder whose sires had produced six Triple Crown winners in the 20th century? Danzig’s presence at the historic nursery for champions came as a result of his classic pedigree and Seth Hancock’s own foresight at the potential inherent in the stallion’s pedigree. By dual classic victor Northern Dancer out of multiple stakes winner Pas de Nom, Danzig had won his only three starts, a brilliant brief career cut short by knee issues. What he lacked in his on-track accomplishments he more than made up for in the breeding shed.

The first book of mares to visit Claiborne’s newest stallion included Six Crowns, a daughter of Secretariat and Chris Evert, her breeder and owner Carl Rosen’s own Triple Tiara winner. Six Crowns herself won only one minor stakes in her career on the track, but her royal bloodlines promised that she could become a stellar broodmare. With that in mind, Rosen’s son Andrew, who had taken over after his father’s death, opted to send her to Danzig in his first season at stud. On April 7, 1982, Six Crowns foaled a bay colt with a star and a white hind sock. The younger Rosen would name the foal Chief’s Crown, combining his father’s nickname ‘Chief’ and the running ‘crown’ theme of the colt’s family.

From the get-go, Chief’s Crown honored the legacy of both sides of his pedigree. Trained by Roger Laurin, the son of Secretariat’s trainer, Lucien Lauren, the Danzig colt broke his maiden in his third start and then recorded stakes wins in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special and three Grade 1 stakes, the Hopeful, the Cowdin, and the Norfolk Stakes. That led into the inaugural Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park in 1984, where the son of Six Crowns faced a field of nine others, including Tank’s Prospect and Spend a Buck in the one-mile Juvenile. Spend a Buck set the pace for the first six furlongs but could not hold off Chief’s Crown in the final quarter of a mile. Rosen’s colt would go down in history as the inaugural winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and finish 1984 as the champion 2-year-old male and favorite for the 1985 Kentucky Derby.

The beginning of his 3-year-old season gave Rosen and Laurin confidence that Chief’s Crown would do well in his Triple Crown campaign. He started with a win in the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park and followed that with a win in the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah; initially disqualified for interference in that race, the Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering reversed the stewards’ decision and restored the win to Rosen’s colt. For his final prep before the run for the roses, Chief’s Crown took the Blue Grass Stakes by 5½ lengths. The Rosen colt entered the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby as the overwhelming 6-5 favorite on the strength of his record at 2 and in the run-up to the first Saturday in May.

Instead, Spend a Buck ran away with the Derby as he ran the fastest first half-mile and then six furlongs in the race’s history to that point. Unable to catch the speedy winner, Chief’s Crown chased in second throughout before Stephan’s Odyssey caught him in the late stretch. When the Derby winner decided to skip the Preakness, Chief’s Crown was again the favorite and looked to have the race won in the stretch at Pimlico but was caught in the final furlong by Tank’s Prospect. Crème Fraiche, trained by Woody Stephens, gave the Hall of Famer his fourth consecutive Belmont Stakes while Chief’s Crown crossed the finish line in third, becoming the third horse in history to go off as the favorite in all three of the Triple Crown races and not win any. It was a disappointing season for Rosen and Laurin, but the year was still young and there were plenty of races left for the son of Danzig.

Chief's Crown, 1985 Blue Grass Stakes, Keeneland, Bill Straus
Chief's Crown winning the 1985 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. (Keeneland Library/Bill Straus)

After an eight-week freshening, Chief’s Crown returned his winning ways in his first race over the turf, the Tell Stakes at Saratoga, but was disqualified to fourth for interference. Two weeks later, he returned to the dirt for the 1 ¼-mile Travers Stakes seeking redemption after four straight losses. In a field absent of any of the year’s three classic winners, the Six Crowns colt laid off the pace until the nine-furlong mark, taking the lead with an eighth of a mile to go. At the finish line, he was 2 ¼ lengths in front, showing that he could go farther than 1⅛ miles, and reassured both owner and trainer that he could hold his own over a distance.

To follow up the Travers, Chief’s Crown faced older horses in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park and finished third behind Whitney victor Track Barron and Vanlandingham, who had taken the Suburban Handicap earlier that summer. The Danzig colt made the Marlboro Cup his own two weeks later; as the only 3-year-old in the field, he came from the back of the pack to move within striking distance of the leaders on the far turn. With a quarter of a mile to go, he passed Vanlandingham on the lead and held off a late-running Gate Dancer to take the 1¼-mile Grade 1 stakes. The win put him back in the hunt for the 3-year-old championship.

With the Breeders’ Cup Classic as his target, Laurin prepped Chief’s Crown in the Battlefield Handicap, an overnight race on the turf at Belmont Park. With that win under his belt, the colt capped off his career with a trip to the second Breeders’ Cup, this one at Aqueduct, and faced Track Barron, Gate Dancer, Vanlandingham, and others in the 1¼-mile Classic. Racing midpack, Chief’s Crown was never a factor, finishing fourth.

The son of Danzig and Six Crowns retired to stud at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Kentucky. There, he led the freshman sire list in 1989 and sired Chief Bearhart, winner of the 1996 Breeders’ Stakes, the final leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, and the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Turf; Erhaab, 1994 Epsom Derby victor; and Chief Honcho, 1990 Jim Dandy Stakes and 1992 Brooklyn Handicap winner. Chief’s Crown fractured a patella in a paddock accident in 1997, survived the surgery, and then compounded the fracture several days later, and was euthanized on April 29.

As we celebrate 40 years of the Breeders’ Cup this year, Chief’s Crown lives on as the winner of the inaugural Juvenile, a race that often gives the sport a preview of the horses that will play a role in the following year’s Triple Crown.

Gulch (1984-2016)

Like Chief’s Crown, Gulch’s pedigree gave every indication of what the plain bay could be, and he delivered. His sire, the brilliant Mr. Prospector, had set multiple track records during a career plagued by injuries that kept him from reaching his full potential, but passed on his speed and quality to a long list of progeny. Not only did he lead the general sire list multiple times, but he produced U.S. classic winners in Fusaichi Pegasus, Conquistador Cielo, and Tank’s Prospect and was the damsire of Pulpit, Scat Daddy, and Malibu Moon, all good sires themselves.

On the bottom side of Gulch’s pedigree was Jameela, the tough mare who powered through four seasons on the racetrack to become Maryland’s first millionaire. From his dam, Gulch got the soundness necessary to compete at the highest level for three seasons. Raced by Betty Worthington until age 5, Jameela was purchased by Peter Brant for $840,000 during her 5-year-old season. Brant would send her to Mr. Prospector for her first cover in 1983, and on April 16, 1984, Gulch was born. A solid bay except for the crescent of white on his forehead, the colt went to the barn of LeRoy Jolley, trainer of Kentucky Derby winners Genuine Risk and Foolish Pleasure, for his first two seasons.

Gulch, 1988 Breeders' Cup Sprint, BloodHorse
Gulch winning the 1988 Breeders' Cup Sprint. (BloodHorse Library)

At 2, Gulch won his first start by 7 ¾ lengths and then went straight into stakes company with a win in the Grade 3 Tremont Stakes at Aqueduct. From there, he added three more graded stakes wins in the Saratoga Special, the Hopeful, and the Futurity Stakes at Belmont before tasting defeat for the first time in the Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita, his final prep before the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at the same racetrack. The field of 13 for the 1986 Juvenile featured a “who’s who” of the 1984 foal crop, including Capote, a son of Seattle Slew who had handed Gulch his first defeat in the Norfolk; Alysheba, who would win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness the following year; and Bet Twice, the colt who would be second to Alysheba in those first two classics and then beat him in the Belmont Stakes. Gulch finished fifth, making a move on the final turn before tiring in the stretch.

The new year would see Jameela’s colt win two of his four starts leading up to the Triple Crown season, riding his victories in the Grade 2 Bay Shore and Grade 1 Wood Memorial Invitational into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Running toward the back of the pack early, Gulch went wide on the far turn and was seven wide at the finish, officially sixth behind Alysheba and Bet Twice. Jolley sent the Mr. Prospector colt to Pimlico to try the Preakness two weeks later; Gulch improved on his Derby performance, racing in eighth early, winding his way through the field down the backstretch and around the far turn, and threatened in the stretch before finishing fourth. For his next race, the Brant colt shortened up to a mile in the Metropolitan Handicap.

Returning to a distance and a track where he was undefeated, Gulch bested a field of older horses like Santa Anita Handicap victor Broad Brush to take the Met Mile, giving both Jolley and Brant hope that the colt could navigate the 1½ miles of the Belmont Stakes. Unhurried early in the race, Gulch passed horses in the stretch to finish third behind Bet Twice. The remainder of the colt’s 3-year-old season saw him start in races like the Whitney Handicap, Travers Stakes, and Woodward Stakes before ending his year with a try in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, coming away with several in-the-money finishes but no wins.

For his 4-year-old season, Brant switched Gulch from Jolley’s barn to that of D. Wayne Lukas, who had taken the 1980s by storm with horses like Codex, Lady’s Secret, Landaluce, and more. Under Lukas’s tutelage, Gulch moved to California and showed that distances from six furlongs to a mile were his forte. He took the Carter Handicap at Aqueduct in early May, scored a second Met Mile win three weeks later, and finished second or third in the Californian Stakes, Tom Fool Stakes, Whitney Handicap, Philip H. Iselin Handicap, and Vosburgh Stakes before returning to Churchill Downs for the first time in over a year to face a field of 12 others in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Each of his three seasons, Gulch had been a part of the year-end Breeders’ Cup World Championships and was unsuccessful in the Juvenile at Santa Anita and the Classic at Hollywood Park. In the mud at Churchill Downs, though, the son of Mr. Prospector and Jameela thrived. With Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., in the saddle, Gulch broke alertly and lingered in eighth behind fast early fractions of :21 for the first quarter-mile and :44 ⅕. Around the lone turn, Cordero moved Gulch up on the outside of the leaders as the Mr. Prospector colt steadily progressed to the lead, flashing under the wire three-quarters of a length in front. It was his 13th and last victory as Gulch said goodbye to the racetrack and hello to the next phase of his life at stud. For his efforts in 1988, he was crowned the year’s champion sprinter.

Standing at Lane’s End in Kentucky, Gulch’s 21 seasons at stud produced 680 winners and 76 stakes winners from his 1,103 foals. The best of them all was Thunder Gulch, who won the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Travers Stakes at 3, earning him an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male in 1995. When his days at Lane’s End were done, Gulch moved to Michael Blowen’s Old Friends Equine Sanctuary in Georgetown, Kentucky, where he lived out the rest of his days as one of the farm’s most popular residents.

Cozzene (1980-2008)

Much like his sire, Caro, Cozzene needed extra time to develop, but both breeder-owner John Nerud and his son Jan, the horse’s trainer, were more than willing to give the gray colt what he needed to shine.

Caro had been a classic winner in France and second to Mill Reef in the 1971 Eclipse Stakes at Sandown before retiring to stud in Haras du Bois Roussel in Bursard, France. He was imported to the United States in 1977 and stood at Spendthrift Farm for the rest of his life, siring horses like Winning Colors, the third and most recent filly to win the Kentucky Derby; and With Approval, 1989 Canadian Triple Crown winner. Nerud sent Ride the Trails, his unraced daughter of Prince John, to Caro in 1979; on May 8, 1980, Ride the Trails foaled a gray colt that Nerud would name Cozzene.

Cozzene, 1985 Breeders' Cup Mile, BloodHorse Library
Cozzene winning the 1985 Breeders' Cup Mile. (BloodHorse Library/Tony Leonard)

The Neruds opted to wait until Cozzene was 3 to start the Caro colt, first in a maiden special weight race at Belmont Park. With Richard Migliore in the saddle, Cozzene won his first race with ease, prevailing by three lengths in the six-furlong race. After three more starts and two allowance wins, Cozzene tried stakes company for the first time in the Grade 3 Jamaica Handicap but finished fifth. For his final start that year, the Caro colt tried 1 1/16 miles in the Palisades Handicap at the Meadowlands, finishing second by a head.

At 4 in 1984, Cozzene had three more starts on dirt with mixed results before switching to turf in June, winning his first try on the grass. He would make seven more starts on that new surface over the latter half of the year and notch in-the-money finishes in the Man o’ War Stakes and the Bernard Baruch and United Nations Handicaps. In the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Mile at Hollywood Park, Cozzene finished third behind Royal Heroine. While he had some success at 3 and 4, the gray Caro horse would find his 5-year-old season to be his best yet.

He started the year in early May with a six-furlong sprint on the dirt at Belmont Park and won with ease. In his next start on the turf, he could do no better than third in the Wise Ship Stakes before trying the Jaipur on dirt again, finishing third in that race as well. On the turf at Monmouth, Cozzene was able to take the Grade 3 Oceanport Handicap by three lengths and later the Grade 2 Longfellow Handicap by two lengths. Five weeks later, Nerud sent Cozzene to the Cliff Hanger Handicap at the Meadowlands, where he entered the starting gate carrying the race’s highest weight. Originally slated for the turf, the race was instead contested on the sloppy dirt main track at the New Jersey track; Cozzene had a rough go of it in the mud and finished sixth of seven. A month later, he was back at Aqueduct for the second Breeders’ Cup, and another go at the Mile.

On firm turf on that early November New York day, Cozzene lined up with 13 others, including the lukewarm favorite Rousillon, and broke from post-position six under jockey Walter Guerra. He rated in third behind Al Mamoon until the stretch and passed Shadeed and then Al Mamoon to take the lead inside the final furlong. At the finish line, Cozzene was a 2 ¼-length victor in his second try in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, making his final race one of the most important wins of his career. John Nerud beamed as he observed that he had bred both the horse and the trainer as Cozzene gave the Hall of Famer his only Breeders’ Cup win. Cozzene was also one of four Florida-breds to win at Aqueduct that day, joining Sprint victor Precisionist; Twilight Ridge, who took the Juvenile Fillies; and Juvenile winner Tasso. It was a fitting exit for Cozzene, who would then join the stallion band at Gainesway Farm, owned by John Gaines, founder of the Breeders’ Cup.

For his efforts, Cozzene earned the Eclipse Award as champion turf male for 1985 and then started his 22 seasons at stud in 1986. Over that time, he sired 998 foals with 609 winners and 93 stakes winners. He produced two other Breeders’ Cup winners, with Tikkanen winning the Turf in 1994 and Alphabet Soup taking the Classic in 1996. Cozzene headed the North American sire list in 1996 and was the leading international sire in 2002. In addition to Alphabet Soup and Tikkanen, he sired Mizzen Mast, stakes winner in America and France and sire of Caravel, and dual surface winner Star of Cozzene.

Chief’s Crown, Gulch, and Cozzene all raced in a new era, as the Breeders’ Cup World Championships became an integral part of the sport’s calendar. Their victories added another dimension to how we think about a horse’s career, accomplishments that rival wins in the Triple Crown classics. To attract three horses of their quality speaks to what the Breeders’ Cup now means to horse racing.

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