Earlier this year Kentucky-based trainer William “Buff” Bradley looked on as veteran star Brass Hat, his “horse of a lifetime,” stood quietly in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle as warm applause and cheers rained down from an appreciative crowd as the old campaigner bade farewell to life on the racetrack.
After launching his career in a race for $15,000 claiming horses in late January 2004, the 10-year-old Brass Hat was retired in early summer with career record of 10-8-5 in 40 races with earnings of $2,173,561. The versatile gelding’s victories include wins on traditional dirt in the Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, the $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs, the $500,000 Indiana Derby and $350,000 Ohio Derby. Stakes wins on the grass included Churchill Downs’ Louisville Handicap and Keeneland’s Sycamore, both Grade III events.
That glossy record does not include a runner-up finish – and its accompanying $1 million paycheck – in the 2006 edition of the then-$6 million Dubai World Cup. Brass Hat was disqualified from that finish for a medication issue strongly disputed by Bradley.
When one considers Brass Hat’s accomplishments and the modest expectations that a career debut in $15,000 claiming company implies, the veteran star would seem to qualify as a dream horse for Bradley and his father, Fred, the former Kentucky state senator who owned Brass Hat and bred the horse on the family’s farm near the Graefenburg-Lawrenceburg exit off Interstate 64 near Frankfort.
One surely could not expect another such horse to come along from that family operation, but it could have happened already.
Passing the Baton?
Last Saturday, the Bradley homebred Groupie Doll – the only 3-year-old in a field of 12 older fillies and mares – scored an impressive three-length victory under resurgent jockey Greta Kuntzweiler in the $100,000 Gardenia Stakes, the Grade III event that is the centerpiece of the summer meet at Henderson’s Ellis Park.
“I told Brass Hat when he left, I said ‘You pass that baton off to somebody in the barn,’ ” said Buff Bradley. “I guess he did.”
Groupie Doll’s stakes debut was her third consecutive victory on dirt after an eighth-place finish in her introduction to racing on the Churchill Downs grass in June. As much as Bradley enjoyed picking up the Gardenia win with his rising star, he was more pleased for his 80-year-old father, a Princeton, Ky., native who cut his racing teeth in the 1930s at the Henderson track that was then known as Dade Park.
“He knows how lucky we were with Brass Hat, and here’s another one that we bred, foaled and raised,” said the younger Bradley. “It means a lot to both of us, just like Brass Hat did. We’ve done everything on the farm and my dad’s done everything on the farm. He’s fenced and, although he was a state senator and a general in the Air National Guard, he galloped horses on the farm and it’s always been kind of a pretty good family operation where we did it all.
“So I think you think back to those days and all the hard work we’ve put into the farm, trying to make it nice enough so we could raise some horses there and get things going, and I think that’s what probably makes it the most special – knowing that we did it from the ground up.”
Although Groupie Doll whipped older fillies and mares at Ellis, Buff Bradley believes his filly is still developing and learning and has “got a long way to go.” Her next stop is expected to be the Charles Town Oaks on Sept. 17, a race against other 3-year-old fillies that carries a slot machine-fed $400,000 purse at West Virginia’s Charles Town. Groupie Doll is not nominated to the Breeders’ Cup, so she won’t be pushed to compete in any of the big money races for fillies and mares when that two-day event returns to Churchill Downs on Nov. 4 and 5.
It would be hard to imagine a career for Groupie Doll that would come close to that of Brass Hat, but three wins in four starts and a graded stakes win over more mature rivals certainly allows one to dream big things. As Brass Hat proved in his long career, anything is possible in Thoroughbred racing.
And Buff Bradley reports that his retired star is enjoying life on the family farm after winding down from his racing career. Fans of a horse that could accurately be described as a true “people’s horse” drop by the farm to visit Brass Hat on a regular basis.
“He’s doing great,” said Bradley. “My little seven-year-old daughter takes him out and turns him out every night. But every time he sees a trailer pull up to the barn, he thinks it’s for him. He thinks he might be going somewhere.”
Breeders’ Cup Notes: There were no surprises in the trio of rich Breeders’ Cup prep races run at Chicago’s Arlington Park last Saturday as European runners – all betting favorites – foreshadowed a possible European parade in this fall’s Cup at Churchill Downs with wins in three events on Arlington Million Day.
John Henry did it
Cape Blanco again easily whipped American turf champion Gio Ponti in the main event, while Euro import Stacelita won the Beverly D. for U.S. trainer Chad Brown and Treasure Beach topped a 1-2 Euro finish in the Secretariat.
Correction: Regrets for an error in last week’s column in stating that Gio Ponti was looking to become the first two-time winner of the Arlington Million. The venerable John Henry took that race in 1981 and ’84.