For all the talk from reformers about spreading out the timing of the Triple Crown races to make it easier on the participating horses, three sophomores this season are showing how Thoroughbreds used to go through this campaign in hickory tough fashion.
California Chrome, of course, has no choice but to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown, having won the first two. His Belmont Stakes (gr. I) outing June 7 will mark his 13th career start.
General a Rod, 11th in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), also came back in the Preakness (gr. I) to run fourth and will be making his eighth career start in the Belmont.
And Ride On Curlin, seventh in the Derby after a rough trip, made a big move in the Preakness to finish second just 1 1/2 lengths off California Chrome. He comes right back in the Belmont for his 12th career trip to the post.
Apparently these guys don't need or want the extra R&R that has become common between starts for today's Thoroughbreds.
"He has been so sound and has so much energy and wants the activity," explained Dan Dougherty, owner of Ride On Curlin, as he walked to the track at a rainy Belmont Park two days before the Belmont. "He's healthy and he's competitive, and you only get to do this once with a horse so we're taking advantage of it."
Dougherty should make the most of this opportunity. Ride On Curlin is the only horse he currently has in training, and for a $25,000 ticket at the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale, he has reaped earnings thus far of $714,687 with the colt by Curlin —Magical Ride, by Storm Cat. The gift horse couldn't have come along at a better time for the 55-year-old native of Southern California who has lived most of his life in Louisville.
"I had to involuntarily retire from my furniture store business last year," Dougherty said. "We couldn't recover from the recession, so I'm racing horses full-time now."
Dougherty's Thomasville furniture stores may not have weathered the storm, but his stable star is doing just that. He has commanded quite a following with his behavior along the Triple Crown trail, rearing up at every opportunity, propping on the track, and alternately biting whoever comes near him and then sticking his tongue out to be pulled.
Having bought his first horse just six years ago, Dougherty, his wife, Lori, and their six children are enjoying the ride as well. Through jockey Corey Lanerie, a Louisville neighbor, Dougherty was introduced to trainer Billy Gowan, and first bought into Readyroll, a horse Gowan had purchased at auction. He has had a few horses with Gowan ever since, mostly claimers. That is, until the men found a tough-looking sonuvagun at Keeneland.
"Billy picked him out," said Dougherty. "I liked his breeding, but I like 20 of them for every one that Billy likes, so he's the final word. I thought the breeding was good for the price. He was crooked in front but he's straightened out quite a bit as he's gotten older."
Barry Eisaman breaks Dougherty's horses in Ocala, and told him that Ride On Curlin was fast. And that's all he said. After that, the horse has been doing the talking, breaking his maiden at second asking and eventually finishing third in the Foxwoods Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont last October. This season he began with an allowance score at Oaklawn Park and since has been a purse-eater, placing in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III), Rebel Stakes (gr. II), Arkansas Derby (gr. I), and Preakness. No wonder Gowan and Dougherty keep sending him into battle.
"It is absolutely a thrill to be going through this," said Dougherty. "The excitement is addictive. And we have a pair of 2-year-olds with Barry in Florida, one by Super Saver and one by War Chant, who are getting ready to come to the racetrack."
Although Dougherty continues to test California Chrome, he is also a big fan of the Triple Crown candidate, and excitedly followed him to the racetrack to watch him gallop two days before the Belmont. But he also knows with a clean trip and nifty ride, he could well be the one to upset the apple cart in the Big Apple Belmont day.
Not bad for a guy with a one-horse stable on a $25,000 ticket.