Nobody in the vicinity of stall 25 in Keeneland's Barn 14 wanted to leave the chestnut mare's side. Not groom Matt Hebert, adding more sheen to her coat; not exercise rider Jada Schlenk, who kept her teary eyes hidden behind stylish sunglasses; and especially not trainer Buff Bradley, anxiously walking the shedrow and wiping his own eyes like a nervous father on his daughter's graduation day.
But for the long-term good of all involved, the people who raised and developed Groupie Doll into the Eclipse Award champion she is knew the time had come to let her go into the hands of another.
When the gavel fell inside the Keeneland sales pavilion a short time later and her new owner became known, the heartbreak of goodbye partially gave way to relief with the most hoped-for outcome.
Groupie Doll, the two-time Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner who was foaled, raised and campaigned by Fred and Buff Bradley, found a spectacular new home Wednesday when she was sold to Mandy Pope's Whisper Hill Farm for $3.1 million to headline the second session of the Keene land November Breeding Stock Sale.
Many a higher-priced mare has passed through the auction ranks. Few if any pulled at heartstrings and had a pavilion as enraptured as Groupie Doll and her adoring entourage.
The decision to sell Groupie Doll was one the Bradleys and their partners Brent Burns and Carl Hurst arrived at with mixed emotions. It would be an understatement to say the 5-year-old was considered part of the Bradley clan, but the financial reality was that the return from her sale on would put Buff and Kim Bradley's children through college, keep their Frankfort-based operation going and allow them all to continue investing in racing for years.
With Buff Bradley seated alongside his father, Fred, in the outer seats of the sales pavilion, they watched as Pope won a protracted battle that saw the bidding open at $500,000. The angst turned to celebration when they realized their homebred mare would be residing just down the road at T. Wayne Sweezey's Timber Town Stables in Lexington, which boards Pope's broodmare band. It includes 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace and 2011 Kentucky Oaks winner Plum Pretty.
"This is the best possible ending for Mandy to get her," Buff Bradley said. "She's building up a big, strong broodmare band, so we're happy about that.
"We know she's going to a place just down the road, and she said we could come see her. That will make Jada (Schlenk) and Matt (Hebert) happy and the whole family. Everybody was thrilled about that. I was just trying to hold myself together."
Just as Groupie Dall turned back challengers in winning her second consecutive Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Santa Anita last Saturday, she was unfazed by the pack of 40 to 50 onlookers who surrounded Barn 14 and trailed her like paparazzi as she walked to the holding ring in the sales arena.
"I think it just shows you what a great fan favorite she was," Bradley said of the reaction. "I feel like I was running for office, shaking hands, kissing babies and handing out buttons."
Consigned by Tom Evans' Trackside Farm, Groupie Doll hit every diva pose as she stepped into the ring and had the bidding sailing up in $100,000 increments. A cheer went up from the Bradley contingent once the bidding hit $2.9 million, with even louder voices erupting when the tote board flashed $3 million.
At that point, Pope threw down one last bid, causing representatives of Town & Country Farm to finally bow out.
"She was gorgeous," Pope said. "She's a champion, she was calm and cool; nothing ruffled her. She just sits there regally taking everything in stride like, 'OK, I'm here, I'm cool.'"
Pope said her plan is to retire Groupie Doll from racing with her 11 wins from 21 starts, but Bradley did make a pitch to Pope about racing her one more time in the Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Nov. 30 — a race in which she was second by a nose last year.
"I have to have her checked out thoroughly. Obviously we wouldn't want to take any undo chances with her," Pope said.
The palpable tension and eventual joy over the sale spearheaded another electrifying day of trading in the Keeneland pavilion. A total of 14 horses have sold for seven figures during the first two sessions of the 10-day sale, double the number that hit that mark during the 2012 auction.
The overall gross of $86,532,000 already has surpassed total receipts for the first three days of last year's sale, with average ($357,570) and median ($220,000) up 21.51 percent and 37.50 percent, respectively.
For those wondering how the Bradleys could part with their beloved mare, Buff Bradley pointed to their blue-collar roots. The financial strain of trying to maintain such a quality mare and her foals could break their small-time operation, taking them out of the game Fred Bradley first put his soul into decades ago.
Among the things Buff Bradley is most grateful for is that his 82-year-old father is finally getting acclaim for his dedication to the sport. That they brought Groupie Doll to her pinnacle on the track and were side by side as she transcended the sales arena was its own storybook finish.
"Doing this with my father has been very special because we've worked on that farm for many years," Buff Bradley said. "He could have walked away at many points, but he loved it so much. The last several years he's been able to reap the rewards for that."
Added Fred Bradley, "We've been very lucky and blessed. I'm just glad she is staying" in Kentucky.
ABOUT THE SALE
Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale
When: Sessions begin at 10 a.m. daily through Nov. 14
Where: Keeneland Sales Pavilion
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.