When you're a small-time breeding and racing operation, you hardly expect the horse of a lifetime to drop into your lap — let alone to breed his equal.
Trainer Buff Bradley and his father, Fred, believed they had reached the pinnacle when their homebred gelding Brass Hat became a Grade I-winning hero for their operation for seven remarkable seasons.
After Thursday's Grade I Vinery Madison at Keeneland, however, Buff Bradley found himself with another star on his hands —and she picked their adopted backyard to announce her presence.
Nearly two years after Brass Hat earned his 10th and final career win at Keeneland, the Bradleys' homebred filly Groupie Doll declared herself his heir apparent when she swept up three wide in the lane and drew off for a three-length victory in the $300,000 Vinery Madison over seven rivals.
Though Brass Hat had given the Bradleys their first Grade I win when he took the 2006 Donn Handicap, the Frankfort-based family had never won a top-level race in their native Kentucky.
All that changed in the seven-furlong Vinery Madison as the determined Groupie Doll dispatched a deep field that included champion female sprinter Musical Romance and Grade I winner Home Sweet Aspen.
"It really gets to me just knowing what we've done. We thought Brass Hat was it," Buff Bradley said, fighting back tears. "He still is it to us. He's family, but she (Groupie Doll) is getting there pretty quickly.
"We knew we were really lucky to have Brass Hat and to be able to have a horse like this that we bred and raised again, it's really special."
Owned by Fred Bradley and his partners William Hurst and Carl and Brent Burns, Groupie Doll signaled her talent early when she won three of her first four career starts, including the Grade III Gardenia at Ellis Park in August 2011.
The chestnut daughter of Bowman's Band had been keeping stellar company of late, running second against males in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park to open her year and finishing third in both the Grade III Sabin Stakes to Grade I winner Awesome Maria and the Grade II Inside Information to Musical Romance.
In hopes of getting her into the race earlier, Buff Bradley added blinkers to the filly for her outing in the Vinery Madison. Focus was certainly not an issue for the 4-year-old as she ranged up four wide into the final turn after sitting behind the leaders through fractions of :22.67 and :46.32.
"I think the blinkers helped a lot because in her previous race she was too far out of it down the backstretch," jockey Rajiv Maragh said. "(The blinkers) gave me some help. She finished with a lot of power and was long gone by the eighth pole."
Sent off at odds of 7-to-2, Groupie Doll struck the front about a furlong out and was never seriously challenged as she stopped the teletimer in 1:23.76. Long shot She's Cheeky came up for second while Musical Romance was a length behind third-place finisher Ariana D. for fourth.
"I couldn't really get her to settle behind horses today," said Juan Leyva, jockey for 9-to-5 favorite Musical Romance.
Where Groupie Doll will turn up next is undecided, but Buff Bradley said she has been nominated to both the Grade II La Troienne at Churchill on May 4 or the Grade I Humana Distaff the following day.
Adding to the swirl of emotions for the Bradley clan Thursday was the fact the head of the family had a front-row view for the celebration. When Groupie Doll was in West Virginia last September for a start in the Charles Town Oaks, Fred Bradley suffered a fall that resulted in fractured ribs and fluid buildup that landed the family's elder statesman in the hospital.
The 80-year-old Bradley was feeling fine, though, as he made the celebratory walk to the Director's Room at Keeneland on Thursday. The longtime owner and breeder was too busy soaking in the fact that his operation once again had snagged lightning in a bottle.
"These Grade Is are getting to be old hat," the elder Bradley joked.