04/29/2014 11:43AM

Gowan living the Derby dream with Ride On Curlin

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In racing, the big fish often eat the small fish. That explains why Billy Gowan’s cellphone started blowing up just a few minutes after Ride On Curlin made his career debut last summer at Churchill Downs.

“We had a lot of tire-kickers but only two serious offers,” Gowan said. “They wanted to tell me everything that was wrong with the horse, and I wanted to tell them everything that was right with him.”

Fortunately for Gowan, none of those low-seven-figure offers to buy Ride On Curlin were consummated, and now here he is, one of the trainers with the good fortune of having a horse for the 2014 Kentucky Derby.Barbara D. LivingstonRide On Curlin has brought trainer Billy Gowan to the big stage in the Kentucky Derby.

With just three horses in his Churchill Downs stable, including Ride On Curlin, William G. “Billy” Gowan is the epitome of the little guy in the big pond that is international racing. That explains why Gowan, unassuming and upbeat, has been among the most popular interviews this week at Churchill. Everyone loves an underdog, and Gowan and his client, Dan Dougherty, have emerged from obscurity to run a horse in the Derby against the likes of Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, and other horsemen with far more experience in the realm of the big-time.

“Sometimes I wonder if this is all true,” Gowan said. “It’s like a dream almost.”

Gowan, 48, was born in Louisiana, where he began his training career in 1988, winning his first race at Louisiana Downs with a horse named Account Overdrawn.

“That was like an omen, wasn’t it?” he laughed. “I’ve had an overdrawn account a time or two since then.”

In 25-plus years, Gowan has won just 80 races – a figure that one of the opposing trainers in this Derby, Steve Asmussen, typically matches in just two or three months. The true odds of Gowan coming up with a Derby horse were astronomical, but now that he has one, he is capitalizing on the rare opportunity to show off his horsemanship.

“A good horse will carry anybody a long way,” he said. “He’ll make you look good, too.”

Purchased by Dougherty for a mere $25,000 at the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale, Ride On Curlin finished second in his June 21 debut at Churchill, then easily won a maiden race at Ellis Park three weeks later. He ran three more times as a 2-year-old, all in stakes, and although he didn’t win any, he ran respectably in all of them, most notably a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park.

Gowan took the colt to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., for the winter.

“The first day we were there, he went real well over that track, and I got a really good feeling about how this might turn out,” Gowan said. “He just kept doing that every day – trained like a bear. He’s completely sound, knock on wood. He’s the same way over this track here at Churchill. He’ll gallop with his ears up in the air, just lovin’ life.”

Ride On Curlin raced four times at Oaklawn, winning an allowance sprint before finishing third in the Southwest Stakes, third in the Rebel Stakes, and second in the Arkansas Derby. His record is not flashy, but his consistency and handiness make him a viable longshot, especially with three-time Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel having the mount.

Gowan and his wife, Tracy, somehow have made ends meet while raising their two daughters in Shepherdsville, Ky., just south of Louisville. Tracy is the daughter of Joe Shulthise, a longtime feed provider for the Churchill backstretch. The family is well known among their peers as hard workers and just plain good folk.

Tracy recently got a nursing degree, and Billy has a Derby horse. After some genuine struggles, life is pretty good right now. Gowan said this experience – as great and unforgettable as it is – won’t change him much, that he only hopes to get a chance to train more horses when all the Derby hoopla is over.

He said he “probably won’t get all dressed up and fancy,” and that he intends to watch the Derby in the ground-floor area reserved for horsemen where the paddock runway meets the racetrack. If Ride On Curlin somehow wins, the story will immediately become one of the all-time greats in Derby lore, rivaling those of Donerail, Canonero II, and the subject of the recently released “50 to 1” movie, Mine That Bird.

“I don’t know if they’d make a movie about us,” Gowan said with a big grin, “but if we get lucky enough to win, by God, they ought to.”