Throwback Thursday: The streaking Thrice Worthy

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Linda Gaudet remembers a “very plain brown-paper wrapper.” She also remembers hair-raising laps of the training track at The Meadowlands, a few stakes wins among nine total victories, a scary moment in a race – and, ultimately, a horse who found his calling.

The horse was Thrice Worthy, who blossomed from inexpensive yearling purchase to talented Mid-Atlantic turf runner (albeit one with a penchant for running off in the morning) and nearly unbeatable steeplechaser. Gaudet’s husband Eddie bought the Virginia-bred as a yearling in 1977. The son of Twice Worthy and the Royal Gem II mare Lycka lost his first start as 2-year-old, but could be excused since future Hall of Famer Spectacular Bid won the race at Pimlico in June 1978. Thrice Worthy was eighth of nine at 122-1.

Despite losing to “the best horse to ever look through a bridle,” Thrice Worthy graduated in his next start three months later with an 8-length triumph going 6 furlongs at The Meadowlands. From there came a string of solid efforts. He won sprinting, going long, on the dirt, in the mud, on the turf, whatever while hammering out a solid living in the Mid-Atlantic. He ran 17 times in 1979, and won six. He ran 16 times in 1980, and won two. His jockeys included everyone from J.K. Adams (nine mounts, four wins) to Angel Cordero (who won one of two).

All the while, the Gaudets simply managed their horse.

“He was the toughest horse I ever galloped,” said Linda. “He was in a gag bit at 2, nobody could hold him. We used to take him to the training track and Eddie would turn me loose and catch me two turns later. If he missed me, I was going another turn or two.”

Though a few others gave it a go, Linda was the horse’s regular exercise rider.

“I liked riding him, but it was work,” she said. “He wasn’t bad and wouldn’t try to do anything bad, he was just pulling on you all the time.”

Plenty of others saw the morning routine, and figured they could do better, including one visitor who said he could ride anything. He pulled up his stirrups after getting a leg up and headed for the track.

As Linda put it, “Let’s just say he didn’t come back the next day.”

Linda and Eddie cajoled enough training out of Thrice Worthy to win the Coal Cracker Stakes at Penn National in 1979 and place in three others. Late that year in the Grade 3 Rutgers Handicap going 1 1/4 miles at The Meadowlands, Thrice Worthy broke from the gate at the top of the stretch and shied from the lights or something. He made a right turn, jumped the outside rail, and watched from the pre-race holding area as Valdez outran Smarten and King Celebrity.

Eddie Gaudet, who died in January at 87, saw the performance and hinted at a future career. “We might have to call Jonathan Sheppard,” he told Linda.

The Guadets kept at it as Thrice Worthy won twice the next year while competing against the likes of The Cool Virginian, Dave’s Friend and Poison Ivory. Late in 1980, they finally did call Sheppard, and mentioned the steeplechase potential of their horse though it probably had nothing to do with that go at the outside rail. Sheppard came to the Meadowlands, bought Thrice Worthy in a package with Ambitious Brother and unknowingly launched one of the signature careers in American steeplechase history.

Racing for owner Will Farish, Thrice Worthy made his hurdle debut at Atlanta in April 1981. He won by 35 lengths. He won again two weeks later, and again a month after that. By July, he was undefeated in five starts – leading at every call – including stakes scores in the National Hunt Cup at Radnor, the Tom Roby at Delaware Park and the Lovely Night at Saratoga. Injury stopped the season there, but did little to diminish the horse’s reputation.

The streak started again in 1982 as Thrice Worthy won on the flat at the Carolina Cup, then reeled off wins in the Sandhills Cup at Southern Pines, the Pillar Stakes at High Hope and the Bolla at Hard Scuffle. That made nine consecutive wins, eight over jumps, six in stakes, and by a combined 121 3/4 lengths. John Cushman hung on through every race.

“He was by far the best 2-mile to 2 1/4-mile horse I ever rode,” said the four-time champion jockey in 2008. “He could not get beat at that distance. He was just fast; a tearaway. He was quick at his fences and I would just never move on him. Never. I’ll never forget him. He would go out and try so hard every time – he would give 120 percent.”

The success didn’t surprise the Gaudets, even if they were impressed.

“He wasn’t that big, but just agile as a cat,” said Linda. “He was a very elegant moving horse and he was obviously good at that.”

Over hurdles, Thrice Worthy won nine consecutive starts (a modern-day record) in 1981, ’82 and ’83 before the streak finally ended in the Carolina Cup in April 1983. Thrice Worthy won twice more over jumps that year, including Saratoga’s Lovely Night under 164 pounds but soundness issues kept him from becoming a champion. Brought back in 1984, he won twice more over jumps – at Fair Hill in May and in Delaware Park’s Indian River in September.

He finished with 13 wins in 20 starts over jumps, another 12 wins on the flat and total earnings of $309,115. Retired to Farish’s farm in Texas, Thrice Worthy later wound up with Sally Nims in Kentucky, where the original plan was to make him an eventer but ultimately he became a valued mentor for younger horses and a much-loved regular at Nims’ Dogwood Springs Farm. He died in 2008 at age 32.

“He would help me break the yearlings and younger horses and just teach them how to do everything, from loading into a trailer to walking into the barn,” said Nims in 2008. “Basically he was always saying, ‘I’m here to help.’ He did everything I ever asked him to do.”

For Linda Gaudet, whose daughters Lacey and Gabby followed her into racing, Thrice Worthy will always be an important part of her life. His photo hangs in the dining room. He’s jumping a fence, in front.

“I’m not sure where any of the photos are from when he was running for us, but I’ve got that one,” she said. “You’re just happy for the horse when they find something like that. We were, for sure. With Jonathan you knew he was going to get a chance.”

And Thrice Worthy made the most of it.

For more, see 2008 obituary on Thrice Worthy by Brian Nadeau.

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In honor of its 40th running this year, the Winterthur Point-to-Point steeplechase meet presents a weekly Steeplechase Throwback Thursday feature. We’ll look back on historic moments, horses and people in the jumping game – at least a few connected to the race meet on the grounds of the famed Winterthur Museum and Gardens just north of Wilmington, Del. This year’s races are Sunday, May 6. For more installments, click on the logo below or the Throwback Thursday text tag.