A wonderful aspect of horse racing is that a little guy in the game can compete in the highest-level races if the right horse shows up in the barn.
Consider trainer Billy Gowan, a quintessential little guy. Ride On Curlin, a son of 2007 Preakness winner Curlin, has brought Gowan to his first Triple Crown series. He's cherishing the experience.
"This is the pinnacle,'' Gowan said early Wednesday morning in the Pimlico stakes barn a few hours before Ride On Curlin would run his final workout before the Preakness. "People spend millions and millions, and sometimes don't ever get there. ... You've got to be grateful and enjoy every minute of it. It's hard to get there. I know it's hard to get there. I might not ever be back. You never know.
"And I just think of all the trainers that I've known since I've been on the racetrack that have never had this chance – and had a lot of horses – and never run one in the Derby. It's just really hard to do.
Gowan, a 48-year-old Louisiana native, hasn't had many horses or big money behind him. He picked out Ride On Curlin, a son of 2007 Preakness winner Curlin, as a $25,000 purchase for owner Daniel Dougherty at the Keeneland September Sale in 2012.
The colt heads Gowan's four-horse stable. The other three horses are claimers, including an Indiana-bred owned by Gowan. Two 2-year-old colts, by Super Saver and War Chant, will join the stable soon.
In 20 years as a trainer, Gowan has won 80 races from 527 starts, never winning more than seven races in a year. The number of horses in his barn peaked at 16 in the mid 1990s, he said, but when a key owner died, the number dropped.
"Two years ago I had about 10 head,'' Gowan said. "Dan was claiming a lot then.''
Among Gowan's best horses was the turf gelding Star Spangled Gator, who earned $229,780 from 2005 to 2009. But Ride On Curlin, who finished third in the Southwest and Rebel and second in the Arkansas Derby on the way to $414,687 in earnings, clearly is the horse of Gowan's career. Ride On Curlin has accounted for more than one-quarter of Gowan's $1.55 million in career purse earnings.
His barn is close-knit, with groom Bridget Lambert, exercise rider Bryan Beccia and Gowan sharing work. He'll pitch in to hot-walk Ride On Curlin – or, as has been the case at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, be dragged around the barn by him.
Ride On Curlin, who had traffic issues in the Derby and finished seventh, is going into the Preakness in top shape, Gowan said. "I love what I see,'' he said. "I went in there this morning, his legs were cold under the bandages. He ate everything.
"This track here reminds me a lot of Ellis Park, just the cushion. It's a little bit deep. It seemed that way to me. And my horse, he never even had seen Ellis Park, and he set a track record first time he ran. I just like the way he looks. He's holding his weight.''
In 1988, Gowan completed an internship Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg as the final requirement to earn an equine degree from Louisiana Tech. Gowan wound up working for Van Berg for 4 1/2 years. After galloping horses for trainer Bill Mott, another former Van Berg assistant, for several months, Gowan went out on his own.
He said he talks to Van Berg every day. "I have to call him,'' Gowan said, "He said, 'You have to call me every day, give me an update.'''
Van Berg gave advice for the workout, Gowan said. "He just said, 'You don't have to do much with him, and make sure you go slow.'''
The Pimlico clocker caught Ride On Curlin, who was hard held by Beccia, completing a half-mile in 49.60 seconds. Gowan, watching from the press-box ledge, timed the workout in 50.60. Dougherty, standing nearby, said to Gowan, "Just tell Jack, 51.''
Dougherty, a furniture dealer from Louisville, Ky., said that he has been associated with Gowan for six years, with 10 to 15 horses. They weren't thinking about Triple Crown races when they bought Ride On Curlin, Dougherty said.
"Not really, but we always knew he was a good horse,'' he said. "We had our eye set on making it to the Kentucky Derby. We would have been pretty disappointed if we didn't get in. And we got in.
"We didn't get as good a trip as we wanted to, so that gives us a really good chance in here. We didn't have to blow out at all.''
Beccia was thrilled by the workout.
"Everything went real well,'' he said. "He's very happy with this track. He likes this track more than he likes Oaklawn and Churchill. He got over this track really, really good.''
Beccia, who said he met Gowan met 25 years ago when they were working for Van Berg, started getting on Ride On Curlin this year at Oaklawn Park. Beccia experienced a Kentucky Derby victory in 2001 as the exercise rider for Monarchos, trained by John Ward.
"I enjoy it more being with a little outfit like this than I did with John Ward,'' Beccia said. "It's more hands-on. We all work together. It's more appreciative to be here than it was with someone like John Ward, where you've got 50 horses, 2-year-olds, and six or seven of them are possibilities to make it to the Derby or the Preakness. And it was expected. This is a lot more laid back. ...
"And it just goes to show, why can't the little guy do it? We've got three or four horses – a $5,000 claimer, an Indiana-bred, Curlin and another horse that just came in. Curlin's the star, but I mean, look what we paid, $25,000 for him. That's not saying that it can't be done, because we just did it."
"You've got to get the horse here, too. You've got to let the horse take you here. You can't push a horse to get you here. You've got to let the horse take you here. ... Someone asked me, 'Is Monarchos the best horse you've ever been on?' No. I've been on a better horse. He just didn't make it. I got on a real nice horse that Jim Keefer used to train called Bay City. He was the real deal. A wall box fell off on him down at Oaklawn or Churchill, and it fractured a vertebra in his back.''
After starting his career with consecutive decisive victories at Oaklawn in 1995, Bay City was sidelined for a year. He finished his career in 1998 as a $2,500 claimer at Ruidoso Downs.
"He was cut out to be a star,'' Beccia said. "And that is probably the best horse I've ever been on, still.''
Ride On Curlin made it to the Preakness, and Van Berg will be watching from California. "I think that horse is for real,'' he said. "Billy does a damn good job. Billy is a good, little horseman.''
Gowan has a chance to win one for the little guys.
"You'd better enjoy it when you can, soak in every minute, because, hell, we might not ever get back here,'' he said.