At this point in her career, whatever accomplishments Evening Jewel manages for owner Marilyn Braly are ancillary. It's not just because the 3-year-old filly is already a Grade I winner on two surfaces, or that in 12 career outings she has finished out of the top two once.
It is due to the fact that the bay filly helped give Braly that much more time with the man she loved.
Win or lose, Evening Jewel's expected start against seven others in Saturday's Grade I, $400,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland will be an emotional affair because it will be her first outing since co-owner Tom Braly — Marilyn's husband — died in early September at 72 after a long fight with cancer.
Initially diagnosed with leukemia seven years earlier — it then progressed into head and neck cancer — Tom Braly was informed by doctors in January that he had about two weeks to live.
What the doctors couldn't detect, however, was how much of an impact the Bralys' rising filly Evening Jewel was having on her owner's well-being. After 30 years in the business, Braly wasn't about to miss out on the exploits of the best horse he and his wife had ever owned.
"I don't think Tom would have lived as long as he had if he hadn't had Evening Jewel to look forward to," Marilyn Braly said Thursday. "I don't think anybody realizes how much he was struggling and how difficult it was for him to get to those races. It was Evening Jewel who just made him hold on until he couldn't any longer.
"I am just so very grateful he was able to enjoy her as long as he could."
Tom Braly's determination allowed him to watch the development of a filly who — were it not for a handful of inches — might be regarded as the top 3-year-old female in the nation right now.
After Blind Luck beat her by a nose in the Las Virgenes in February, Evening Jewel became the Bralys' first Grade I winner when she won the Ashland Stakes on the Keene-land main track in April.
What followed was a crushing loss in the Kentucky Oaks to Blind Luck, who somehow caught her at the wire for victory again.
It was after that outing that trainer Jim Cassidy went ahead with his initial plans to put Evening Jewel on the turf. The result has been three straight graded stakes wins, including a half-length victory in the Grade I, 11⁄8-mile Del Mar Oaks on Aug. 21 — the final race Tom Braly got to see.
"We had planned on running her on the turf even before the Ashland," said Cassidy, who won the QEII in 2004 with Ticker Tape. "The first time I ran her on the grass in the (Grade II) Honeymoon, I thought she'd run better than she did. She won the race, but I thought she would have really impressed me. She did in the (Grade II) San Clemente. And then, of course, in the Oaks ... she was phenomenal."
Evening Jewel's tactical ability gives her a couple of interesting options for a possible Breeders' Cup run.
Depending on how Saturday goes for the 5-2 favorite, Cassidy is pondering taking another shot at Blind Luck in the Ladies' Classic or putting Evening Jewel in the 7-furlong Filly and Mare Sprint.
"I'm not opposed to running her in that race; you'd be surprised how fast she is," Cassidy said of the Sprint. "But it might be fun to run against Blind Luck again."
Evening Jewel is one of three horses in training owned by the Bralys and, difficult as it has been for her to return to the racetrack since her husband's passing, Marilyn Braly has no plans to get out of the business.
"That is what Tom wanted, and that's what I will do. I enjoy it," she said.
What became abundantly clear months ago is just how precious Evening Jewel actually is.
"The doctors, they couldn't understand how he was going. They told his wife, 'This horse is doing better for him than we could do,' " Cassidy said. "It's a wonderful thing, these animals, and what they can do."