Ode to a great horse: Brass Hat is retired

| June 1, 2011

At a time of year when racing’s focus is firmly on the glamorous 3-year-old division and a possible rematch between Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Shackleford, the Churchill Downs-based colt who rebounded to beat the former in the Preakness, we are watching thoroughbred racing at its essence.

That essence is the pursuit of dreams, which is a more accurate description of racing than any that would characterize the pursuit as a money-making enterprise.  Sure, you can make money in racing, and sometimes a lot of it.  But one should not necessarily plan on it.
There was another important reminder of the essence and allure of Thoroughbred racing over the Memorial Day holiday weekend at Churchill Downs.  It didn’t come during a race.  It came instead in a formal farewell to a horse that fit the description of ‘dream horse” as accurately as any to run beneath the historic Twin Spires or in the Commonwealth of Kentucky as any in recent memory.

Fans and friends gathered last Saturday in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle to bid farewell to Brass Hat, who is stepping away from the racing business at the age of 10.

Owned and bred by Fred Bradley, a former state senator from Frankfort who owns a farm near the state’s capital city, and trained by his son, Buff, Brass Hat is without question one of the great rags-to-riches stories in the nearly two and a half centuries that horse racing has been a pursuit of residents of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Everyone in the racing business dreams, at one time or another, of winning a Kentucky Derby.  But when Team Valor International’s Animal Kingdom won this year’s “Run for the Roses,” he was the one special horse out of a group of nearly 35,000 members of this year’s crop of 3-year-olds bred in the United States that achieved American racing’s ultimate dream.

The dream of winning a Kentucky Derby is clearly an achievable one.  Ask the New Mexico-based connections of 2009’s 50-1 longshot winner Mine That Bird or the New York high school pals who purchased and raced Funny Cide, the New York-bred gelding who took the roses in 2003, whether the seemingly impossible can happen.

But the Kentucky Derby dream is almost too overwhelming for many owners and trainers to take seriously.

What everyone would love to have is a horse like Brass Hat.

The Bradleys could never be accused of being overly ambitious regarding Brass Hat, who was so gangly and unimpressive as a 2-year-old that he did not make a single start.  He was only slightly more imposing at three when Buff Bradley dropped Brass Hat’s name in the entry box for his career debut in a race for $15,000 claiming horses at Turfway Park on Jan. 29, 2004.  Brass Hat finished second that day at odds of 32-1.  But two starts later the Bradleys cheered when Brass Hat notched his first career victory, this time at odds of 38-1, in an upset win in Turfway’s $100,000 Rushaway Stakes.

Despite that inauspicious beginning, Brass Hat proved quickly to be more than a on-shot hearo.  By the end of his first racing season he also collected Grade II stakes victories in the Ohio Derby (GII) and Indiana Derby (GII) and had run well against major competition in stakes races on the grass.

Over the rest of his remarkable career Brass Hat would rebound successfully from two major injuries to collect an impressive group of stakes triumphs that included the Grade I Donn Handicap (GI) at Gulfstream Park, the New Orleans Handicap (GII) at Fair Grounds, Suffolk Downs’ $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap in 2007 and the 2005 Prairie Bayou at Turfway Park.  He shifted almost exclusively to the grass late in his career and scored emotional victories for the father-and-son team behind him in Churchill Downs’ Louisville Handicap in 2009 and a major win as a 9-year-old in last year’s Sycamore at Keeneland.

He was preparing to race as a 10-year-old when Buff Bradley decided that it was time for Brass Hat to go home to the family farm.  He leaves his life at the track with a record of 10-8-5 in 40 races with earnings of $2,173,561

Brass Hat’s totals would have topped the $3 million mark had he not been disqualified from a runner-up finish in the 2007 running of the $5 Dubai World Cup (GI) at Nad Al Sheba.  He was stripped of his second-place finish and the $1 million paycheck that went with it because of a medication violation that the younger Bradley disputes to this day.

While winning the Derby might be the ultimate dream, the devoted fan base that followed Brass Hat proved time and again that coming up with a horse like the Bradleys’ star is everyone’s dream. Buff Bradley called him a “blue collar horse,” and he understood why Brass Hat’s fans were saddened by the surprising news that the veteran star’s racing career had suddenly and unexpectedly come to an end.

“He still really has the want-to,” Buff Bradley said on the eve of last week’s Louisville Handicap, a race that Brass Hat was being pointed toward earlier this year.  “If he was ready to run in the Louisville Handicap tomorrow, he’d be in the starting gate.  But he’s not ready and I thought it would just take too much time to get him ready to compete this year.”

Saturday’s farewell to Brass Hat from fans, friends and Bradley’s barn crew was emotional, but most evident among the emotions on display was the joy that this special horse had come along.

So please join me in wishing a “Happy Retirement” to Brass Hat. We’ll see many great horses in the years to come at Churchill Downs, but few as special as this old boy.

Brass Hat was a living dream, and his accomplishments and very existence provide motivation to those in racing to get up early each day and head to the barn.  A racing adage holds that a good horse can come from anywhere, and Brass Hat proved that is clearly true.

And sometimes, as Fred and Buff Bradley would attest, the thrill of racing a truly good horse can happen to you.

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