Try what they will, trainers can dictate their horses' paths only to a certain point. And shortly after returning from what was supposed to be her season-ending triumph in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 3, Groupie Doll told her conditioner, Buff Bradley, he'd better call an audible — fast.
Since Churchill Downs wanted to honor the Kentucky-based Breeders' Cup winners by parading them on Nov. 11, Bradley decided to take his homebred filly to the track for a couple days in an attempt to take the edge off this year's likely champion female sprinter. In dragging exercise rider Jada Schlenk around the Churchill oval, Groupie Doll convinced her connections that whatever vacation plans they were making on her behalf needed to be rescheduled.
"I trained her a few days to keep her from getting too high and Jada and them came back and said, 'You better find her a race,'" Bradley said. "It's going to be Churchill's fault. If I didn't stick around for (the parade), I probably wouldn't even be thinking of this."
When athletes are in the so-called "zone" the way Groupie Doll has been, it's often best to just get out of their way. Thus, instead of spending her Thanksgiving turned out at the Bradleys' Frankfort farm, the 4-year-old chestnut filly will be en route to Aqueduct as the 8-5 morning-line favorite against six male rivals in Saturday's Grade I, $350,000 Cigar Mile.
Regardless of what transpires Saturday, Groupie Doll has at least one Eclipse Award locked up as the overwhelming favorite in the female sprint division. Her sublime 41/2-length triumph in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint was her fifth consecutive win and third Grade I victory of the year, not to mention a showcase of all that has made the daughter of Bowman's Band an unbeatable force since she took the Grade I Vinery Madison at Keeneland in April.
On a speed-favoring track in the Breeders' Cup, Groupie Doll had to run hard on the outside the entire way under jockey Rajiv Maragh — never getting a breather as she rallied from midpack but never looking for one moment like she was even close to reaching the limit of her ability.
"We're not really losing anything by (running in the Cigar Mile)," said Bradley, who also co-owns and bred Groupie Doll along with his father, Fred. "Yeah, we are running against the boys, but she's on top of her game now. Since she got back home she has felt great and not missed a beat. And she's ready."
Groupie Doll, who drew the outside post 7 in the field, has two wins at the mile distance, taking the 2011 Grade III Gardenia Stakes at Ellis and an allowance race at Gulfstream last December. Among those she will be facing Saturday are Stay Thirsty, winner of the 2011 Travers; 2010 Cigar Mile winner Jersey Town; and Donn Handicap winner Hymn Book.
A win in the Cigar Mile would make Groupie Doll the only North American-based horse with four Grade I wins in 2012. Groupie Doll, dual classic winner I'll Have Another, Breeders' Cup Mile winner Wise Dan, Breeders' Cup Turf hero Little Mike and Turf runner-up Point of Entry all have three.
It would also give her an all-important open win against males, something that could not only earn her champion older female honors over Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic winner Royal Delta — who has just two Grade I wins this year — but could put her in the running to challenge Wise Dan for 2012 Horse of the Year and become the fourth consecutive female to wear that crown.
"That's not why we're running or anything," Buff Bradley said of a possible Horse of the Year push. "She's just right right now. Charlie (Lopresti — trainer of Wise Dan), I still think he has the Horse of the Year right now. I think that she would have to go up there and really do something special before she would get a lot more consideration and knock him off. But (Horse of the Year) is not really our goal and that's not really Charlie's goal either. It's about doing right by the horse."
Lopresti and Bradley have already unofficially partnered up once this year with grand results. In the weeks leading up to the Breeders' Cup, they and fellow trainer Ian Wilkes joked about winning all three of their respective races, a feat that was capped off when Wilkes saddled Fort Larned to victory in the $5 million Classic.
Bradley and the Keeneland-based Lopresti, longtime friends with their respective modest-sized operations, are proof that good horses can come from anywhere, and that good things come to those horsemen who listen to their charges.
"It was pretty emotional (winning the Breeders' Cup races)," Bradley said. "I think one big thing people understand is Ian and Charlie and I, we're not the (Bob) Bafferts and (Todd) Pletchers. So I think it gives a lot of people hope they can have a horse at this level and keep it. I think people know it doesn't have to be the sport of kings."
It doesn't hurt when one has a potential all-conquering queen like Groupie Doll, either.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.