06/03/2014 2:18PM

Dougherty family banking on Ride On Curlin

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Barbara Livingston
Ride On Curlin will start as the likely second choice in Saturday's $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.

Dan Dougherty has been forced to gradually close all 16 of his furniture stores over the past five years due to the economic downturn. When the final two were shuttered last summer, the 55-year-old father of six faced an uncertain financial future.

But then along came Ride On Curlin.

Ride On Curlin, the Billy Gowan trainee who could start as the second choice in the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes on Saturday, has earned $714,687 since making his debut last June. He has had particular success at 3, running second in the Preakness and also picking up second money in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby. Ride On Curlin’s other highlights include a seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby in Dougherty’s hometown of Louisville, Ky.

“I’m pretty much just racing this horse right now, and it’s been a godsend,” Dougherty said.

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Dougherty was a large-scale furniture dealer, with stores in Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia. But business slowly started to unravel when his American-based suppliers were unable to compete with firms manufacturing furniture overseas, leading to one of them filing for bankruptcy.

“When all the industry went to China for production, it changed the whole ball game,” Dougherty said. “But the recession is the real problem.

“I’ve poked around in a few different things in furniture, but things are so consolidated, there’s not a whole lot out there. I haven’t found anything that looked like a good fit so far.”

The stressful situation – amplified by the fact that Dougherty and his wife, Lori, still have a pair of teenage daughters at home – has been eased by the success of Ride On Curlin. He is not only buoying up a family, but realizing dreams for Dougherty. Ride On Curlin gave the man who bought into his first horse in 2008 his first starter in the Kentucky Derby.

“I’ve always been a racing fan, and when I was 10 years old and moved to Kentucky, my first Derby that I can remember was the Dancer’s Image Derby [in 1968],” Dougherty said. “I pretty much have watched every Derby since. My parents always enjoyed the races.”

Dougherty’s first horse, Readyroll, was owned in partnership with Gowan.

“Corey Lanerie actually introduced us,” Gowan said of the Churchill-based jockey and neighbor of Dougherty’s. “Corey was working my horse [Readyroll], introduced me to Dan, and Dan wound up buying 40 percent. Then we ended up getting some other horses together.”

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Dougherty spent $25,000 to purchase Ride On Curlin as a yearling, during the Keeneland September sale in 2012.

“He put up his money to try to get a good horse,” Gowan said. “We were claiming horses and buying horses. I suggested we go to the Keeneland sale to try to get us something nice, and we came up with Ride On Curlin.

“He put his money up, took his chances, and you have to tip your hat to him.”

Gowan said Dougherty will have invested a total of $110,000 to pay entry and starting fees to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown.

“People might say he’s making money, but he’s spending a lot of money. It’s a very expensive game.”

Ride On Curlin began making good on Dougherty’s investment two starts into his career last July, when he won a maiden special weight sprint at Ellis Park with a Beyer Speed Figure of 91. He would go on to take his owner all the way to the Kentucky Derby.

“There’s [25,500] registered 3-year-olds [in North America] racing,” Dougherty said. “The odds of getting a horse that can make it to the Derby were very, very low. It was something else. It really was.”

Things got even better a few weeks later, when Ride On Curlin closed fast to finish second in the Preakness. He finished 1 1/2 lengths behind California Chrome, who on Saturday is bidding to become just the 12th horse in history to win the Triple Crown. Many believe Ride On Curlin is the one he will most have to fear in the lane in the Belmont.

“Curly’s doing very well,” Dougherty said of Ride On Curlin. “I think we have as good a chance as anybody to win that race. I think he’ll improve upon the Preakness, and the distance will play into our favor.

“It would be nice to win it. It would be nice to see a Triple Crown if we don’t. But if we can win it, we’re there to win it.”