As David Allen Coe's friend Steve Goodman wrote, the perfect country and western song says something about mama, trains, trucks, prison and gettin' drunk. Well, David (and Steve) never met Cowboy Dan.
He was a cheap Texas-bred Thoroughbred, a $1,600 yearling, whose life ought to play at Ryman Auditorium. He's trainer Bret Calhoun's Horse Who Changed Everything and boy did he. Foaled in 1995, the dark bay son of Walesa and the Kennedy Road mare Dimpled Darling sold to Tommy Landreth at the Texas Thoroughbred Association yearling sale and joined Calhoun's fledgling stable at Delta Downs in 1997.
"Smallish horse," Calhoun said when asked to describe him. "But he had quite a bit of talent and a lot of heart."
For 2-year-olds in Louisiana, the Jean Lafitte Futurity used to be a major target. Horses had to start early and qualify in a trial, but they could compete for $100,000 if they made the cut. Cowboy Dan won a trial "by a pole," according to Calhoun. Equibase said 5 1/4 lengths, but the 4-furlong race only lasted 47.12 seconds so the margin was substantial enough. Cowboy Dan streaked to the front with a quarter-mile in :22.60 and coasted home in the March 13 trial.
Sixteen days later came the Lafitte. Cowboy Dan got sick with an intestinal issue, missed some time, but made the race.
The fans sent Cowboy Dan off at 4-5 in a field of 10. He drew the inside post, got squeezed back early and came running. He finished fourth, beaten three necks.
"Devastating," Calhoun said. "I had very few horses in the stable. I wasn't smart enough to know how good he was, but I knew he was way different than anything else I had in the barn."
Crushed but undaunted by the defeat, Calhoun and his horse headed to Kentucky and a brush with greatness. Cowboy Dan went off at 28-1 in the WHAS-TV Stakes at Churchill Downs five races before Silver Charm won the Kentucky Derby. Cowboy Dan got bumped "hard," the chart said, made the lead at the top of the stretch with a four-wide move on the turn and just missed - losing by a neck to Favorite Trick. Yes, that Favorite Trick. The 2-year-old phenom would go on to win Horse of the Year honors.
Off that race, Landreth received plenty of offers for his stable star and sold him to owner/trainer Danny Hutt. Calhoun lost a horse, but got a big commission.
"The owners were very gracious," he said. "I went from being completely broke and in debt to being able to get back square and get started building a career as a trainer. I got some owners and things were better from there."
Calhoun's girlfriend Sara Escudero has heard the story so many times, she made the country-song comparison. But wait, it gets better.
Cowboy Dan went to Texas for the summer and won an allowance race, and then the Mid-South Futurity (both at Lone Star Park). Next came a 9-length destruction of the Cradle Stakes at River Downs in September, and then a win in the Grade 2 Arlington-Washington Futurity at Arlington Park in October. His 2-year-old season ended with five wins in eight starts and $382,584 in earnings.
Calhoun was on his way, too. He won a career-high nine races that year, his fourth as a trainer. The next year he won 23. Five years later he won 156 and off he went. In 2010, he won two Breeders' Cup races - the Turf Sprint with Chamberlain Bridge and the Filly and Mare Sprint with Dubai Majesty. Last year, Calhoun was ninth in the nation with 177 wins.
He owes it all - or at least some of it - to Cowboy Dan.
"There have been a lot that have been very good to me, and they're all important to me but you go further back to getting me started and it has to be Cowboy Dan," Calhoun said. "My financial situation at the time cannot be understated. He was a game-changer. That horse changed my life. No doubt about it."
Like lots of racing stories - and country songs - this one ends sadly.
Cowboy Dan won once as a 3-year-old in 1998, a River Downs allowance after trying the Louisiana Derby and Lexington Stakes. In February 1999, he got claimed from Hutt for $40,000 at Fair Grounds. Cowboy Dan made three starts in 22 days for his new connections, then died in a barn fire.
"He had a bad ending, he died a tragic death," said Calhoun. "But I'll never forget him."