Trainers often speak about the good horses in their barn in terms of what separates them from the rest of the stock. Not long after Buff Bradley and his family pulled the blonde-tinged colt now known as The Player out of his dam, the venerable horseman began stockpiling evidence as to why the son of Street Hero is unlike any other charge he has had.
On Bradley’s phone are pictures of a horse who, at first glance, looks like he’s seeking out a career as the family pet. The Player’s sweet demeanor allows the Bradley children to crawl all over him, and he has an affinity for sitting on his haunches as though he were the barn’s Labrador.
Still, there are other pictures that speak to why Bradley thinks his homebred charge could be deserving of being labeled as special — specifically, shots of him striding clear of his foes in the Churchill Downs stretch and images of him in the winner’s circle looking like a horse ready for the next challenge.
“He is one you just notice,” Bradley said. “For a very long time (we’ve been excited about him). He always had a personality and a look to him and ... when he got to the track and started working, we could tell he was going to be all right.”
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The Player can serve notice as to what kind of talent he is harboring when he races in Saturday’s Grade II, $500,000 Indiana Derby at Hoosier Park. He is the 6-to-1 co-third choice on the morning line in a 12-horse field that features Rebel Stakes winner Cupid and Preakness Stakes runner-up Cherry Wine.
Though the 1 1/16-mile Indiana Derby represents the first dive into stakes company for The Player, the chestnut colt isn’t exactly a stranger to top-level foes. He faced the likes of Cherry Wine and eventual graded stakes winner Tom’s Ready when he ran fourth in his career debut at Churchill Downs last September. After having a knee chip removed last fall, The Player has delivered results that have backed up his growing following.
After running second in his 3-year-old debut at Keeneland in April, The Player scored back-to-back triumphs once he stretched out to a mile at Churchill Downs, breaking his maiden by 5 1/2 lengths on May 14 and defeating graded stakes-placed Unbridled Outlaw by 1 1/2 lengths on June 3.
“I think he’s just figuring it out,” said Bradley, who co-bred and co-owns The Player along with longtime family friend and partner Carl Hurst. “His first race this year at Keeneland, he really backed up turning for home, and I was like, ‘Well, he’s not going to run at all,’ and he ends up finishing second and just galloped out past the winner like it was nothing. The light bulb clicked about halfway throughout the race and he finally figured out, ‘I’ve got to beat these things’.
“We obviously knew when he broke his maiden in the fashion he did that he should be an exceptional horse. However, I thought he still has some maturing to do mentally and physically, so we didn’t just want to throw him in a stakes at that time.”
Family is something Bradley values intensely. He has spent his career developing the Frankfort-based Indian Ridge Farm alongside his late father, former Kentucky State Senator Fred Bradley, who passed away just days after The Player broke his maiden. Of all the storybook moments the Bradley clan had enjoyed as a result of homebreds like Groupie Doll and Grade I winner Brass Hat, it is fitting The Player is now trying to carry the mantle for what the elder Bradley started decades earlier.
The Player is one of the final horses Fred Bradley co-bred with his son and Hurst before his health began to decline a few years ago, and the colt represents the fourth generation of his family the Bradleys have trained. When Fred Bradley privately purchased Regal Export — great grand dam of The Player — in 1994, the hope was that the daughter of Regal Classic would become a foundation mare for their operation.
More than 20 years after the fact, that notion keeps gaining in strength. In addition to producing King of Speed, who would earn nearly $600,000 in his career, Regal Export’s daughter Town Queen would become the Bradleys’ first homebred stakes winner and go on to produce Hour Queen, dam of The Player.
“I’ve raised most of his whole family — uncles, nieces, nephews,” Buff Bradley said. “We expected this family to be strong from the very beginning, and I think it is special to know that we’ve kept the family, we’ve believed in the family and now (The Player) has come along and can push this family a little bit more forward.”
To say expectations were heaped on The Player early is only the half of it. During a visit to the clinic as a foal, Dr. Nathan Slovis of Hagyard Equine Medical Institute declared the colt was ‘a rock star’ and, as a result, he was given the nickname Angus after AC/DC lead guitarist Angus Young.
Buff Bradley quips that The Player is a horse who knows how to rest and remain unfazed by his surroundings. If he can relax near the front end on Saturday and finish with the same energy he has in his most recent starts, the horse who is already like family to his connections could become the latest validation of the Bradley vision.
“We always felt this (family) could produce something,” Buff Bradley said. “You always dream of those Grade I horses like a Brass Hat or a Groupie Doll. Right now, we’re just happy we hung on to the family.”