For both champion Groupie Doll and the connections who have been with her since birth, Saturday's Grade III Gardenia Stakes at Ellis Park represents a return to where their sparks all began.
As a boy growing up in Providence, Fred Bradley and his father were regulars at the Henderson track previously known as Dade Park, ventures that fueled a lifelong adoration and involvement for the future state senator in the Thoroughbred industry.
On August 13, 2011, a chestnut filly the now 82-year-old Bradley and his son Buff co-owned and bred earned her first graded stakes victory when she bested 11 other runners in Ellis' signature race.
"I know when we won that race, my father was really happy," Buff Bradley recalled of Groupie Doll's 2011 Gardenia triumph. "He was probably as excited about winning that race as he was about maybe winning a Grade I out of state. He's been going there (Ellis) since he was a kid."
Since that day, Groupie Doll has become a six-time graded stakes winner, including three Grade 1 victories. After months of having her explosive engine recharged, the 5-year-old daughter of Bowman's Band makes her long-awaited seasonal debut against 11 challengers in the one-mile, $100,000 test.
The father-son team of Fred and Buff Bradley have long embodied what it means to be old school horsemen committed to Kentucky racing. So when their homebred Groupie Doll captured the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint last November to clinch the Eclipse Award for champion female sprinter of 2012, the emotion of having decades of commitment rewarded about knocked the breath out of the family.
The toll of her nine-race campaign, which concluded with Groupie Doll falling the scantest of noses short of 2011 Travers Stakes winner Stay Thirsty in the Grade I Cigar Mile last November 24, also knocked more out of her than originally believed. When Buff Bradley — who conditions the mare for his father and partners Carl Hurst and Brent Burns — was unsatisfied with how she was training in Florida at the start of the year, he made the call to turn Groupie Doll back out at the family's Frankfort farm where her only duty was keeping retired Grade I winning gelding Brass Hat company.
While there is always a risk that giving a mature mare extended time off would permanently take her mind out of the racing game, the four bullet workouts Groupie Doll has posted since returning in late June have indicated to the younger Bradley she is ready and willing to pick up her division's mantle once more.
"Usually when you turn out a filly or mare, you don't want to give them too much time off but ... I felt like she really needed it and I felt like at the time mentally she wasn't into it," Buff Bradley said. "Right now I feel like she's come back even better than she was. Everyone thinks she's filled out and looks even bigger and stronger, and God help us if she's faster.
"Every thing I see in the mornings points to that we're going to be alright, and that she is willing and wanting to do it."
Buff Bradley originally planned to have next month's Presque Isle Masters serve as Groupie Doll's 2013 debut spot, but was forced to bump up her return when she came into hand as quickly as she did.
Though she will have to break from the No. 2 post position against a full field Saturday, Groupie Doll has the clear class advantage over her fellow entrants in the Gardenia. Ever since Bradley put blinkers on her for the first time during her win in the Grade I Vinery Madison at Keeneland last April, Groupie Doll's acceleration has earned her five graded stakes scores.
"I guess if they ever thought they were going to beat Groupie Doll it'd probably be after a nine month layoff," Bradley said of the full field of challengers entered. "I think she's the best horse on paper. We just have to overcome any problems she encounters in the race."
Assuming all goes as expected Saturday, one can expect Groupie Doll to follow the same course as she did a year ago with starts in the Presque Isle Masters and Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes leading up to what the Bradleys hope is her title defense in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.
"I think this is a perfect spot for her to start and she's ready," Buff Bradley said. "Winning this stake is important and it will be equally important to us this time as we think it's part of the stepping stone to another great season for her."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.