You might remember The Player: the popular stakes-winning racehorse who contemplates life while sitting on his butt and sometimes sticking out his tongue. More clown than horse, he’s tackling new frontiers after nearly meeting an untimely end last year. He is stepping out as a young stud.
The Player has entered a universe of risk where the stakes are higher than on Wall Street. Young stallions, often syndicated among investors, generally must make their mark within their first several foal crops that reach the track as 2-year-olds. If these offspring fail to hit a home run quickly, their fathers can see their fees drop. This happened to Smarty Jones, the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner whose stud fee declined from $100,000 to $3,500.
The Player has gone to stud for a $2,500 fee and without the hype that swirled around Smarty Jones. He’s entered this new world quietly, without the attention that has dogged Triple Crown winner American Pharoah ($125,000 fee), whose first crop of 2-year-olds is racing this year. Expectations for The Player are nothing like they are for 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify, now in his first season of breeding for a $150,000 fee. Stallions at this high-interest level go to stud accompanied by marketing campaigns and expectations of an industry that wants their offspring to repeat or exceed the racing careers of their sires.
Paparazzi did not dog The Player into the stallion barn at Crestwood Farm. After the breeding season ends in June he’ll return just as quietly to his home and birthplace, Indian Ridge Farm in Frankfort, because his owners like having him around. Perhaps he’ll make a return trip next year to Crestwood when breeding re-opens in February.
But while he has not drawn paparazzi, The Player does have his fans. Great numbers of them. These are folks without the deep pockets of investors or breeders, people who call the farm just wanting to know if they can visit this horse. “He’s very popular. I wish he’d get popular in the pocketbook,” said co-owner and co-breeder, William “Buff” Bradley, with a touch of wry humor.
He’s just glad the horse is alive. And because The Player is more like a family pet, he’s not facing pressure to make a quick success of himself at stud. He has a pedigree rich in racehorse talent and as racing fortunes go, The Player has as much chance as any horse to throw a Kentucky Derby winner.
What a story that would be, salted with the bizarre mélange of anecdotes that form The Player’s back story.
In his youth, The Player, son of Street Hero, roughly resembled a nerdy “Young Sheldon”: creative and clever in a very odd way. Bradley (everyone calls him Buff) frequently witnessed the horse displaying the strangest behavior: surveying his pasture from a seated position. He was particularly proficient at turning 360 degrees on his butt to take in the entire view.
Horses just don’t do that. Their DNA in the predator-prey hierarchy has programmed horses to run from predators. Horses are the meat in this system. Ask any coyote skulking through Bluegrass farms at night, looking for an easy meal. Coyotes find young foals especially finger-lickin’ good.
Bradley wondered if a neurological problem was causing The Player’s odd behavior. He sent Angus, as the Bradley family called the horse at home, for a checkup at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington. The young horse turned out to be in excellent health. He was simply weird.
Things got more interesting as The Player matured and graduated to a racehorse. One day at Gulfstream Park in south Florida, Bradley made a video of the horse eating his hay — while lying flat on his side. He was chewing happily away without a care. He also has a habit of lying down in his stall, sticking his head out into the aisle from beneath the stall door and watching the action upside-down.
Bradley always gave The Player his way in these matters, as there wasn’t much he could do to change the horse’s ways. Bradley also is very fond of this horse. Partnering originally with his late father, Fred Bradley, and their longtime co-breeder and co-owner, Carl Hurst, Bradley has bred three generations in The Player’s family. He talks about equine aunts and grand-dams as though they are his own relatives seated around the Thanksgiving dinner table.
“The grandmother (Town Queen) was the first stakes-winner that Carl and Fred and I ever bred,” Bradley said. While racing for the Hurst-Bradley partnership, she won a couple of stakes races on the Kentucky circuit and earned almost $250,000.
The Hurst-Bradley partnership has long been known for coming up with horses that have built huge fan bases, partly because they exceeded expectations on the racetrack. The two best known were major stakes-winners Brass Hat and Groupie Doll. The Player, now 6 years old, seemed headed down a similar path after winning Keeneland’s Grade 2 Hagyard Fayette Stakes in 2017 and the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap last year at The Fair Grounds in New Orleans. The following month, The Player ran his last race.
‘We’ll do everything we can’
The Player was coming around the final turn in the $400,000, Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap on March 24 at Fair Grounds when he shattered the two small bones, called sesamoids, behind his ankle. With the bones went the tendon and ligaments. His right leg was a mess.
Jockey Calvin Borel pulled him to a stop as soon as he felt something go wrong. Bradley went “bolting down the track as fast as I could,” he said. The veterinarian said it wasn’t good. I said, let me hold him, I’m going to take him on the (ambulance) van, he’s my horse.
“It sounds corny but when we got back to the barn I said to him, ‘buddy, you do everything you can and we’ll do everything we can.’ I’m talking to him like he’s a human.”
Surgeons have the ability to repair an injury like this. The real problem comes during recovery. A horse can reinjure itself by thrashing about while waking up from anesthesia. Or, complications like laminitis can follow: this is what got Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who developed the painful hoof ailment in the foot opposite the leg he injured in the Preakness Stakes. The ailment develops from putting more weight on the uninjured hoof, a natural result of the animal trying to shift its weight off the injured side.
By now the surgery and recovery story at Louisiana State University is well known to The Player’s numerous fans. As long as The Player stood a chance, Bradley and Hurst did not want him euthanized. “The Player was insured,” said Bradley, “but we knew we had a duty to do everything we could for him. And I don’t think it’s just us. I think a lot of people out there care about their horses.”
Six months later The Player went home to Kentucky. He made the trip in a van over several days, when normally the trip takes about 12 hours. Bradley lengthened the trip because he wanted The Player to rest each night. Bradley rode with the horse in the van, feeding him peppermints along the way. He had posted their departure on Facebook and asked if anyone had room for the horse during his journey home. He received four or five responses.
One interesting response came from a farm in Alabama. “The people insisted we stay in their guest room,” Bradley said. “We didn’t know these people. But they were fans. I was so tired, I crashed. The next morning there was a picture on my phone: They’d texted a picture of him from the barn, lying down in the night, just in case I woke up I’d know he was resting comfortably.”
Back home in Kentucky
Now, with 16 surgical screws and a plate in his ankle, The Player has stepped into his new career. Bradley knows he won’t be a highly sought-after stallion when facing competition from horses who stand for six-figure fees. “He’s been bred to 14 mares, four of those our own,” he said. And yes, The Player still sometimes sits on his butt at Crestwood. One day, sitting down and clad in a horse blanket resembling a pair of pajamas, he looked like he was watching a movie. If only he’d held a bag of popcorn in his hoof, the scene would have been perfect.
Back to business, The Player faces formidable competition in gaining commercial acceptance as a breeding animal. With only a small date book of mares, the task looks even more daunting.
“It’s tough (for a new stallion) because now their books (of scheduled mares) are bigger and bigger,” said Robert Keck, a pedigree specialist at Crestwood Farm. “Some stallions are breeding over 200 mares. You’re competing against a vast number of foals sired by a handful of sires.
So where does this leave The Player?
“There have been a number of stallions who had small books and ended up successful,” Keck added, “but it is tough.”
As for Bradley, who has been with this horse from its birth, it doesn’t matter whether The Player makes it or not in the high-stakes breeding world. “I’m sure if he’d stayed in Louisiana or gone to Indiana to stand at stud that he’d have gotten a much fuller book,” Bradley said. “I’m not going to move him around the country just so we can benefit from more breeding seasons.”
In their small world of home-bred racehorses, Bradley and Hurst are just glad to have the horse back home in Kentucky where he can spend retirement — sitting on his butt.