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SHEPHERDSVILLE - Along the backstretch at Churchill Downs in Louisville, everyone knows him as Bronco Billy. At home in Shepherdsville, they call him Dad.
Veteran horse trainer Billy Gowan will bring his family to the Twin Spires on Saturday to watch his three-year-old colt, Ride On Curlin, compete in the 140th Kentucky Derby.
Ride On Curlin qualified as a Derby participant after solid showings in major stakes races, most recently a second-place finish at the Arkansas Derby.
A trio of qualifying races at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas kept Gowan away from home for most of the winter, away from his wife, Tracy, and their two daughters, Janet Kay, 13, and Alicia, 11.
“My family sacrificed a lot this winter while I was in Hot Springs,” he said.
Gowan began training regularly at Churchill in 1994, originally living on property owned by his father-in-law in Louisville.
“The airport took our land,” he said. “We fixed this (Shepherdsville) farm up and cleaned up the house. The house dates back to the 1800s. There’s a spring house on the property that goes back to 1855.”
Gowan heard stories that the land was one of the first settlements in the county, and was involved in one of the first county land disputes involving pioneer Squire Boone.
“There’s a cemetery on the property that I was told was the Shanklin Cemetery,” he added.
Gowan grew up in WInnsboro, a small town in northeast Louisiana about 10 hours from Shepherdsville. His father was the town veterinarian.
“I grew up on a farm,” he said. “We were always around horses at rodeos and 4-H events. My dad got some thoroughbred horses when I was in high school.”
Gowan eventually attended Louisiana Tech University, earning an Animal Sciences degree. He left for California in 1988 to work with Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who had recently won the Kentucky Derby in 1987 with Alysheba.
“There are a lot of successful trainers now that have worked under him,” Gowan said. “That’s one of the reasons I went there. He was and is one of the best that’s come down the pike.”
Gowan ventured on his own by 1994, spending time at Churchill and training up to 15 horses at a time. As of now he has just three, but one of them will race in the Kentucky Derby.
Gowan’s relationship with Ride On Curlin began in Lexington at the annual Keeneland yearling sales. He suggested to the horse’s owner, Dan Dougherty, that they try to “get a young stakes horse.”
Gowan said he didn’t have a lot of time to look that day, but he saw a horse he liked, and the price was right. With a current bid of only $20,000, Gowan suggested that Dougherty go up to $25,000.
Ride on Curlin had a strong pedigree, son of the legendary Curlin, who won the Preakness and Breeders Cup Classic, and finished third in the 2007 Kentucky Derby. Another Curlin offspring, Palice Malice, won last year’s Belmont Stakes.
The reason for the small price was a physical situation involving the horse’s feet, but Gowan was not concerned.
“His toes are in a little on both front (feet),” he said. “My Dad said don’t worry about it if (the condition) is the same on both sides. The perfect horse is not always the best horse.”
Gowan said Ride On Curlin trained and performed well leading up to the Run for the Roses. There’s a confidence in the barn area even if the odds don’t show in the horse’s favor.
“He’s got the blood lines to win the Derby,” he said. “I took a shot and so far it’s paid off.”
Another factor playing into Gowan’s hands is his horse’s “toughness” both on the track and in the barn.
“He’s one tough horse to be around,” Gowan said. “You’ve gotta be on your toes 24/7, he’ll kick and scratch and bite at you. He’s got the perfect mind for this race, he doesn’t get rattled. That’s a God-given ability, you can’t train that in him, and that’s a fact.”
Also adding to Gowan’s confidence is Ride On Curlin’s rider, Calvin Borel, a three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey and fellow Louisiana native.
“I told Calvin he’d better be on that rail,” Gowan laughed.
Gowan has attended the Kentucky Derby over the past two decades, sitting on the backstretch with other Churchill employees, like a small family.
This year, with millionaires and celebrities making their appearances, Gowan will be found in his usual area, along the backstretch, with his work family and his real family.
“If any movie stars wanna see me they’re gonna have to come out there to do it,” he added.
The long-time trainer understands the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity his colt brought into his life. Win or lose, he plans to soak in every aspect of the day, noting that some trainers never make it back.
“When you win the Derby you have fun and you celebrate, and when you lose you drown your sorrows, but either way we’re gonna enjoy it,” he said.