Buff Bradley Reflects On The Impact Of Ellis Park
HENDERSON, Ky. – Buff Bradley still has the photo.
It’s of his late father, Fred, in the winner’s circle of Dade Park in 1938, soaking in the Henderson, Ky. venue that would become Ellis Park as well as the catalyst behind a life’s work. It was at the “Pea Patch” where Fred Bradley fell in love with Thoroughbred racing, a passion that gave rise to his family’s Indian Ridge Farm in Frankfort where he and his son worked to produce the kind horses that would allow them to experience all the peaks and valleys that come with being in the mercurial industry.
In his decades as an owner and breeder, having one of his homebreds prevail in the biggest stakes race at his adopted home track was on par with any aspiration Fred Bradley could conceive of. Hence, when the chestnut filly out of his mare Deputy Doll stepped into the Ellis Park starting gate for the Grade 3 Gardenia Stakes 11 years ago and proceeded to saunter her way into the same winner’s enclosure her owner used to visit as a kid, it held more than just the obvious level of significance.
“My dad grew up at Ellis Park, that was his home track and then when (the Gardenia) became their signature race, it was a race we always looked at,” recalled Buff Bradley, who retired from training last year to become Associate of Sales Development at Keeneland. “It’s their biggest race down there and the fact it’s now named after our champion mare, that does feel pretty good. It’s special to me because…that’s what started it all for all of us,”
More than a decade after Groupie Doll announced herself as one of the best female sprinters of her generation, the race that now bears her moniker will be contested for the eighth time at Ellis Park on Aug. 14, 2022. In 2015, the track announced it was renaming the Gardenia in honor of the Bradleys’ champion distaffer following a career that saw her annex consecutive editions of the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) en route to earning Eclipse Awards for divisional honors in 2012 and 2013.
Before she became known as a four-time Grade 1 winner and the only horse still to win two runnings of the Filly & Mare Sprint, Groupie Doll was the pretty daughter of Bowman’s Band that Buff Bradley held high hopes for even though her first career start didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Following her debut at Churchill Downs on June 4, 2011, an eighth-place run going five furlongs on the turf, Fred Bradley gently suggested to his son that maybe they should consider dropping the filly in for a claiming tag in her next start. What Buff Bradley had seen from Groupie Doll in the mornings, however, told him that first outing should be forgiven and, after breaking her maiden next time out when put on the Churchill main track, she proceeded to continuously raise the bar on every expectation placed upon her copper shoulders.
In her third career start and first visit to Ellis Park, she ran her rivals off their feet during an 8 1/2-length triumph in a seven-furlong allowance test that July. When the decision was made to try her against older mares the following month in the one-mile Gardenia, it spoke to the level of confidence the Bradleys had – faith that subsequently went through the roof when she galloped to a three-length triumph that day.
“We always liked her and even before she ever ran the first time, we thought she would be a nice enough filly,” said Bradley, who trained Groupie Doll and campaigned her along with his father and partners Carl Hurst and Brent Burns. “The first time she ran was on the turf and she looked like deer in the headlights, she was just kind of like ‘What’s going on here.’ I remember my day saying after the race ‘You can drop her if you want to because I didn’t see much’ and I said ‘Yeah but I see it every day. She’s going to get another shot.’ And obviously the rest is history.
“We knew that she was moving forward leaps and bounds obviously (heading into the Gardenia). I never like thinking too far ahead but we had already thought about that race when she won the non-winners of two and won impressively. And she was the only 3-year-old in the race that year too.”
It would be eight months after her Gardenia triumph before Groupie Doll would earn another stakes victory but, when she did have another high-end break through, it too came in eye- opening fashion. In April 2012, she notched the first of her four top-level wins when she captured the Madison Stakes (G1) at Keeneland, besting a field that included 2011 champion female sprinter Musical Romance.
That triumph kicked off a run of five straight victories for Groupie Doll, a streak that culminated with her first Breeders’ Cup heroics at Santa Anita Park and only ended when Stay Thirsty edged her by the narrowest of nostrils in that November’s Cigar Mile Handicap (G1).
She would go to the sidelines for nearly eight months at the conclusion of her 2011 championship campaign and when she did resurface, the Gardenia was again tapped as the spot for the Bradleys to showcase their stable star to the masses. Where she emerged from her first Gardenia run with questions about how good she could possibly be, though, her third-place finish in the 2013 edition of the race sparked some whispers that maybe her heralded form was now missing a step.
Just as he was insistent after her career debut that there was more there than the result suggested, Buff Bradley exited that Gardenia as emboldened as ever that his mare was as good as ever.
“I think we were disappointed for about five minutes,” he said. “She hadn’t even walked up to the top of the stretch before going back to the barn and we just kind of caught ourselves and said, ‘Hey she made her run, she showed us that she’s back.’ The initial blow of not winning maybe caught us right there because you’re expecting to win, you want to win. But we caught our heads and got really positive again real quickly. We knew that race was going to move her forward.
“I had people just questioning me that maybe she’d lost a step, maybe she’s not as good. I said let me tell you, this filly couldn’t be any better than she is right now.”
Three starts later, Bradley didn’t need to convince anyone of how exceptional Groupie Doll was. She returned to Santa Anita and again departed with Breeders’ Cup hardware having bested future champion Judy the Beauty by a half-length for her second Filly & Mare Sprint crown.
In the days that followed, another whirlwind of emotion would hit her connections when Groupie Doll was sold to Mandy Pope’s Whisper Hill Farm for $3.1 million at the 2013 Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale. She would retire after a final career victory in the Hurricane Bertie Stakes (G3) in February 2014, providing the Bradleys with one last image of her in the winner’s circle and giving Fred Bradley full realization of a dream that first manifested at the Western Kentucky track he called home.
“You know, when she won the Breeders’ Cup, that was my relief. I felt like I could breathe,” Buff Bradley said. “I knew that she had done what we wanted her to do. I knew what she could do, and I just wanted her to prove it.”
Written by VidHorse
Photo courtesy of Buff Bradley