“My very first thought when I decided to be a horse trainer was, 'Well, I'm going to win the Kentucky Derby,'” said trainer Billy Gowan. “I thought it was going to be easy.”
It has taken Gowan 20 years to get to there, but he finally has his opportunity.
The conditioner of Ride On Curlin is a Louisiana native and the son of a horse veterinarian. Gowan went to Louisiana Tech for an equine degree and in order to complete a required internship for the program, he worked under Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg. The internship became a five-year position before Gowan took out his own license out in 1994. Since then, he has kept his operation small with no more than 48 starts per year, mostly at the claiming ranks.
“I haven't had a lot of owners who wanted to spend a lot of money,” he said. “It's hard to get a Derby horse when you're in claiming horses.”
Despite working primarily in the claiming game, Gowan did find stakes success with trainee Starspangled Gator, who won the Concern Handicap at Louisiana Downs in 2007.
Finally, Gowan convinced owner Daniel Dougherty to let him purchase a horse from Keeneland's September Yearling Sale, and in 2012, Gowan headed to Lexington.
“It happened so fast,” Gowan recalled. “[Ride on Curlin] was standing in the back ring, and he looked really nice. We didn't have time to vet him or anything, it was just that quick. He looked the part, and he had the pedigree, so I took a shot.”
Gowan paid $25,000 for the son of Curlin and Storm Cat mare Magical Ride. He didn't know then how far the bay horse might take him, but he knew he liked the colt's pedigree. Physically, Ride On Curlin's only flaw was that he was a little toed-in in the front, but Gowan remembered his father telling him that if both front feet were turned in, he shouldn't worry about it.
“It turned out all right—or, it turned in all right,” he said. “It's been a fun ride.”
Those front legs didn't seem to bother Ride On Curlin as he began racing last June. After finishing second in his debut at Churchill Downs, the colt broke a track record in his next start at Ellis Park July 13. In fact, Gowan said, Ride On Curlin is a unique combination of solid mind and healthy body—so far, he has stayed sound during his nine-race career.
After that impressive early effort, Ride On Curlin turned in third-place finishes in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes, Grade 3 Southwest, and Grade 2 Rebel Stakes. Saturday, he finished second behind 41-1 longshot, Danza, in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, grabbing 40 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, enough to secure a spot in the field of 20.
Ride On Curlin also carries the distinction of being the only horse on the track for Dougherty, a Louisville businessman. He came into racing through jockey friends Corey Lanerie and Robby Albarado and keeps a small stable. Doughterty used to own a network of furniture stores but has gradually sold out of the business, which slowed after the recession. In a perhaps unconventional move, he decided to turn his full attention to horses, and so far the shift is working well.
Dougherty said Ride On Curlin generated a lot of interest from private buyers early on, and he gathered from their testing that he had something special on his hands. According to some reports, Dougherty turned down as much as $1 million for his $25,000 colt.
“It's such a longshot,” he said. “There are so many great animals that get hurt here or there, and it's a day-to-day thing … we didn't let that scare us off.”
Dougherty and Gowan had mixed emotions about the Run for the Roses as they waited for a van to take Ride On Curlin to Churchill Downs on Monday.
“It's a mixture of things—lots of anticipation. It's a waiting game,” Dougherty said. “Thirty, forty, fifty days between races, then it comes and it goes so fast. Then you wait for the next one. It's kind of like going to the airport.”
Gowan sees things a little differently.
“I don't think he has any weaknesses, if you want to know the truth,” he said. “I'm not nervous. I'm excited. No reason to be nervous; I've got a fast horse. Nervous is for when you're trying to make payroll with a slow horse. Me and my owner both, we have a lot of friends and everybody's excited for us. My kids and his kids are about the same age and they're excited; everybody in their schools is excited.
“This has been fun, more than anything. Just fun.”
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