ROCing the Derby with Friendship and Laughter

The Life

Ride On Curlin's owners Dan and Lori Dougherty at Churchill Downs (Photos by Julie June Stewart unless noted).

I love the friendships you develop with horse racing folks. In 2008, I attended my first Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park. I literally didn’t know a single person but when you are at the racetrack, every person is a future friend. Which is exactly how I met Benton Brandon, handicapper extraordinaire and (in his other life) CEO and co-founder of Exclaim Health TV Network in Arkansas. He taught me the basics of betting then showed me his impressive spreadsheets for the Breeders’ Cup races. I realized that he is a very methodical man who carefully does his research. I also learned that I was with a “celebrity.”  He was one of the Pick 6 winners in 2007 at Hollywood Park.  It was the largest pool in North America, totaling $7.6-million, with 13 winning tickets.  

Over the years, Benton and I have kept in contact and one day he told me that he was very impressed with a young filly who was running in the Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park named Rachel Alexandra. Today, every horse racing fan knows about the legendary career of Rachel Alexandra. So when Benton tells me about a horse, I pay attention!  And this year, his horse is 2014 Derby contender Ride On Curlin known to everyone by his barn name “ROC.”    


When Benton graduated from college, he went to work in Louisville and became friends with his boss Daniel J. Dougherty (Dan). They would spend the weekends at Churchill Downs. Racetrack friendships often have a way of being cemented for life, and it’s always fascinating how all roads lead to horses.  As the years passed, Benton moved to Arkansas but he always kept in touch with Dan. Last year, Dan called Benton to tell him about a new horse he had acquired, who is a son of Curlin. His sire was the darling of American horse racing when he won the Preakness and the Breeder’s Cup Classic in 2007 and the 2008 Dubai World Cup. He is the number one all-time leading North American-raced horse by earnings, having won more than $10-million dollars.

Benton realized the ROC was special when he broke the track record at Ellis Park in a maiden special weight race at 5 ½ furlongs on July 13, 2013. According to the chart, Ride On Curlin “broke a step slow, recovered quickly and assumed command before going sixteenth of a mile, drifted about leaving the turn but drew away to score with something left.” Benton said that “ROC” is a “beautiful horse, with a great turn of foot, and a high cruising speed. He is a tough colt and always ready for battle.”

During the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, Benton said: “it was beautiful. He was running down the middle of the track just like his daddy, Curlin. He didn’t win [He came in third behind Hoppertunity and Tapiture] but he just fights. He is not the fastest or the biggest but he is the toughest, which will be handy in the 20-horse field of the Kentucky Derby.”

Dan and trainer William “Billy” Gowan had been working together for about 6 years when they noticed Ride On Curlin at the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale. Dan said: “ROC had the pedigree to be in the first book of the sale but he had foot issues. We were able to pick him up for a pretty good price. The foot issue went away.” Dan enjoys his relationship with Billy. “Billy is a good, ‘hands-on’ type of trainer and an honest trainer. He is fun to be around which is one of the best things.” 


Dan is married to Lori Dougherty. Their life is a wonderful blend of horses, golden retrievers and cats. They have two teenage daughters (Alex, 14 and Cookie, 13) who love setting up jumps in the yard to train their beloved off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) as hunter/jumpers. Their other four children are grown. The Doughertys love their horses and even bought back a horse that was claimed from them.  He is now living in their backyard. Lori said: “Our first date was riding horses on the beach; we got engaged at the Derby; we got married on the island where there are no cars. We had wild horses walking through our ceremony. Our girls would live in the barn.”

When they are not in school, they are in the barn. Lori has an OTTB that she has had for 6 years and says, “he is the love of my life.” Lori has a big heart and, in addition, she has founded Winter HAYven, a non-profit 501 (c)(3) organization designed “to offset the expenses of winter hay for Thoroughbreds off the track and assist responsible horseman that require help to keep their horses.”

The friendliness and happiness exuding from Barn 47 is palatable as you walk down the road. A happy throng of well wishers and connections seems to be always present with Dan and Lori. At the head of the helm is the affable Billy Gowan. Billy breaks into a huge grin when I asked him to tell me about himself and said: “I am the greatest horse trainer that ever lived!” His eyes dance when he catches your eye, and you instantly laugh. He has always “been into” horses. His dad was a veterinarian, and there are pictures of him on the back of his dad’s horse when he was in diapers. He was raised in the small town of Winnsboro, La. “We always were around horses; rodeo and cutting horses and then dad got some Thoroughbreds.” 

I asked him how he got here to the Derby with ROC? Billy smiled and said: “He brought me here. I picked him out. I liked the way he looked and I really liked his pedigree. I think that is a pretty good combination.” I asked him about ROC’s stall behavior. Gowan said: “He has been that way since day one.  I didn’t consider gelding him because he really isn’t studdish. He doesn’t holler at the mares. He is just tough and he can be mean. If you get aggressive with him, he will get aggressive with you.  He likes fingers, shoulders and arms – that is his specialty.”

Lori likes to call him “sassy.” She said he is pretty good with kids, however he recently bit their 13-year-old daughter Cookie. So Cookie made the sign that is outside ROCs stall cautioning others that ROC will bite you. Many have posted pictures of ROC on social media as he stares out the stall, looking serene and peaceful, but I think the picture of Benton and ROC is more realistic.    


Photo by Benton Brandon

Gowan realized that he had something special when ROC set the track record at Ellis Park.

“I knew we had a pretty special horse especially at a place where they have been running for 90 years.

“It wasn’t a fluke. As a 2-year-old in the second start of his life, Calvin Borel rode him and was petting him on the neck the last sixteenth of a mile. He still broke the track record. That’s when I knew we had something special.” 

When asked how he survives the ups and downs of horse racing with such a good attitude, he said: “I like to think that is the whole key to life – to have a good attitude. I like to think the positive.  I don’t like to live in the negative. My glass is always half full.” He shines a great big smile and laughs. “I think you are blessed every day you are here and should be happy about it. I try to wake up happy every morning. There might be some nitwit who irritates you, but usually I wake up pretty happy. Happiness and laughter is the key to a long life. This is a no-frown barn!”

They are planning their family gathering on Sunday morning after the Derby. Benton, Dan, Lori and Billy are gathering their friends and family to celebrate the journey.

“We will celebrate either way because we made it to the Kentucky Derby,” Lori said.   

In the world of horse racing, there are always the barns filled with champions who pursue the Derby.  But the beauty of the Derby is that a “small-town” trainer and owners can also come on the wings of a wonderful horse, bringing fans, friends and family. ROC’s connections know they are blessed to be in the 140th Kentucky Derby. In this case, it is a feisty tough colt with a taste for fingers who carries their dreams.  

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