LOUISVILLE — It has been one of owner Tom Braly's favorite routines over the past few decades: visiting the backstretch, mingling with the horsemen and generally soaking in all aspects of the racing game that have kept him captivated.
"I just enjoy it, I enjoy coming out here in the mornings," Braly said while standing outside Churchill Downs' Barn 41 Wednesday morning. "I enjoy being around the trainers and the jockeys."
After a few minutes, Braly added, "I was just thinking now, I'm glad I made the decision to come."
Braly's visits to the Churchill backside this week have held more meaning than ever. For more than one reason, the 72-year-old California native wasn't sure he'd get this far.
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After 30 years of involvement in Thoroughbred racing, Braly and his wife, Marilyn, who own only three horses, are experiencing their biggest thrill yet as their improbable Grade I-winner, Evening Jewel, is set to start in Friday's Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies.
Seven years ago, Tom Braly was diagnosed with leukemia, which has since progressed into head and neck cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation have helped Braly physically battle the disease, but it is Evening Jewel who has been her owner's best form of treatment.
"It's been a rough battle but, as I tell most people, this horse was the best therapy that ever happened to me," Braly said. "Throughout the chemo, the radiation, all that stuff, this horse is worth a million bucks in that respect. It's just been fun to be around. It really has.
"This one came into our lives, and it's been a ride we'll never forget."
Purchased privately by the Bralys as a juvenile last spring, Evening Jewel let them and trainer Jim Cassidy know early that her potential went beyond the norm.
Aside from a sixth-place finish in her career debut at Del Mar last August, the daughter of Northern Afleet has not been worse than second in her seven subsequent starts. All have come over synthetic surfaces, including a win in the Grade I Ashland Stakes at Keeneland on April 3.
Included in her four runner-up efforts are a 11/2-length loss to eventual Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Caracortado last December and narrow defeats to fellow Oaks contenders Crisp and Blind Luck in the Grade III Santa Ysabel and Grade I Las Virgenes, respectively.
"She's just been unbelievable. She's done everything right," said Braly, who owns an insurance company based in Orange County, California. "I haven't had one that has been at this level. This horse came to it so quick. But we never thought we'd be standing here now."
When Evening Jewel wired the field in the 11⁄16-mile Ashland Stakes, she defeated reigning 2-year-old champion She Be Wild.
The decision to move forward to the Oaks wasn't such a clear-cut move, however. Not only had the taxing race taken a toll on the bay filly, but it also took something out of her owner.
"It's a big step coming back for this race. After the Ashland, it took her about two weeks to come out of it and get really back into things," Braly said. "It all came down to me, whether we could do it or not, how it would affect my health coming back here."
Having been cleared to travel, Braly said he and his family hope their filly can maintain her top-class ability in her most challenging race yet.
Not only will the Oaks' 11⁄8 miles be the farthest Evening Jewel has traveled, but it will also mark her first start over a dirt surface.
While she led every point of call in the Ashland, Evening Jewel's style has been to stalk and pounce. The fact that she has to break from post 11 in the 14-horse field Friday shouldn't change that.
"The only reason why we were on the lead in the Ashland is, there was no speed in there," Cassidy said. "This forces us to sit back, which is what I wanted to do."
These days, what Braly wants most is more time to enjoy his family and the sport he so loves.
With every elegant stride she takes, Evening Jewel — in her own way — is helping Braly do just that.
"You have good days mentally and bad days mentally, but when you have a horse like this, it's something to look forward to," he said.