The feisty colt two stalls down from California Chrome might be his most dangerous rival, and not because Ride On Curlin likes to kick and buck. One observer called him a "nasty horse," and his trainer, "Bronco" Billy Gowan, didn't disagree. "Even after he gallops," Gowan said, "he's tough to handle."
He's 2-for-11 and winless beyond 6 furlongs, seemingly an unlikely candidate for the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes on June 7. Yet Ride On Curlin has the field's best distance pedigree, and for a few strides in midstretch in the Preakness it looked as if he might catch Triple Crown contender California Chrome.
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"At the eighth pole I thought I had a shot," Gowan said Wednesday outside Barn 26 at Belmont Park. "And that was after he was steadied twice."
The son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin is a compact bay who looks nothing like his sire, a huge chestnut. "Curlin was a monster," Gowan said. Ride On Curlin takes after his mother, Magical Ride, a daughter of Storm Cat, one of the most influential sires in history. Gowan still can't believe that with those bloodlines, Ride On Curlin cost only $25,000 as a yearling. "I figured with that kind of pedigree, for that price there had to be something wrong," he said. "But the vets checked him out and he was fine. It must have been his conformation."
The Louisiana native, 49, went out on his own in 1994 after working for two Hall of Famers, serving 41/2 years as Jack Van Berg's assistant and galloping horses for a year for Bill Mott. Gowan is very low-profile, with 80 wins in 529 starts, including a win, two seconds and three thirds in 10 this year, according to equibase.com. A year ago, his stable was empty after one horse was claimed and the other got hurt. At the time, his only hope was Ride On Curlin, who would not debut for four months. Now Gowan has a chance to ruin a Triple Crown bid.
Gowan's five-horse stable is based at Churchill Downs, where his Kentucky Derby debut went poorly. Three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel immediately angled to his happy place, the rail, from post 18. "That was his idea, not mine," Gowan said. Ride On Curlin got jammed up at the back of the pack behind a slow pace before rallying for seventh.
"He only ran an eighth of a mile, and the next day he was bouncing around the barn. That's when I started thinking about the Preakness," he said. "People told me, 'No, you should rest him and wait for the Belmont. You don't want to run in all three races.' Back in the day, that's what they did."
Nobody is more old school than his mentor, Van Berg. "Belmont day is Jack's [78th] birthday," Gowan said, "and he told me he wants a present."
If Ride On Curlin were a human, you might connect his anti-social traits to bad racing luck. "I hate to make excuses," Gowan said, "but he's never had a perfect trip and had some horrible posts. I've always thought his pedigree would take him a mile and a half. He's just a tough horse, and I'd like to see him and California Chrome go down the stretch together."
Add Medal Count. Trainer Dale Romans said Medal Count (eighth, Derby) will run in the Belmont. Stakes coordinator Andrew Byrnes said the field also includes Commanding Curve, Commissioner, Matterhorn, Matuszak, Samraat, Tonalist and Wicked Strong, with Kid Cruz possible.