Every year, around 30,000 Thoroughbred foals are born in the U.S. Only a handful of those thousands become champions, and even fewer win consistently. Frankfort, Kentucky, trainer William “Buff” Bradley just happened to bottle lightning twice.
Bradley’s small Indian Ridge Farm, where his children Kory, Drew, and Jett help with barn chores every morning and his wife Kim looks after the horses when Bradley travels, has been home to $2.1 million champion Brass Hat and two-time Eclipse Award winner and back-to-back Breeders’ Cup victor Groupie Doll. In May, Ellis Park announced it is changing the name of its signature race, the Gardenia Stakes, to the Groupie Doll Stakes. The 7-year-old retired mare recorded two victories and one third place finish at Ellis Park during her career, including the 2011 Gardenia by three lengths as her first stakes win.
The Gardenia Stakes, named for the flower in the winner’s garland, was first raced in 1982 and earned graded status in 1999. The 34th annual race will run on Aug. 8 during the Henderson, Kentucky, track’s 31 days of live racing beginning on July 3; it is for fillies and mares 3 years and older. When the name change of Ellis’ only graded stakes race (a Grade III) was announced in May, owner Ron Geary says he worried there would be a negative response because of the Gardenia’s longevity.
“To be honest, I thought we might have some push back, but everybody is so happy we made that decision,” says Geary, who purchased the track from Churchill Downs, Inc. in 2006 and has boasted improved attendance numbers every year. “She got her start here in a stakes race. We named the race in honor of this horse who has put Ellis Park on the map nationally and internationally by winning two years back to back in the Breeders’ Cup.”
The Bradleys’ connection with Ellis Park goes deeper than racing the $2.6 million horse at the track. Buff’s father Fred Bradley, a former attorney and Kentucky state senator, is a native of Providence, Kentucky, which is 40 miles from Henderson. Fred took weekly visits to the former Dade Park, now Ellis. Fred, who acquired the Frankfort farm in 1967 where his son raises horses today, worked as an owner-trainer duo with his son who helped breed and foal Brass Hat, the horse that paved the way for the Bradleys to breed and foal Groupie Doll.
“It is a special honor — especially for it to be at Ellis,” says Buff Bradley, who has a winners’ circle photograph from 1938 of his father as a child at Dade Park. “It means so much to my father and my family because that’s where he started going to the races and that’s where my family got our start.”
Racing Groupie Doll, who was co-owned by Bradley, Fred, and longtime partners Brent Burns of Gulfshores, Alabama, and Carl Hurst of Madisonville, Kentucky, at Ellis just seemed natural to Bradley. “I like Kentucky racing,” he says. The filly won her first race in her second start at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, before shipping to Ellis Park and winning a seven-furlong allowance race.
“When she broke her maiden in her second start, we started thinking the Gardenia would be a stiff test and would tell us exactly what type of filly she would be. She was the only three year old in the field. She was up and coming. After that race, she stamped herself as a filly to watch and people starting recognizing her,” says Bradley of Groupie Doll’s 2011 three-length romp at Ellis. The next year, as a 4 year old, she won the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint in Santa Anita, California.
Bradley also used the Henderson track’s signature race for the mare’s first start back in August 2013 after missing half of the season that year with health concerns. She finished third in the Gardenia after the long layoff. The return to Ellis began the second racing season in a row that she would win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
“Even growing up, the Gardenia was the race that we always wanted to run in,” says Bradley. “When I was prepping her for her comeback, it meant something for the people down there to have her race (at Ellis). It was nice to show her off and have the fans see her. It was special.”
After the 2013 racing season, the daughter of Bowman’s Band out of Deputy Doll was sold at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale in Lexington, Kentucky, for $3.1 million. Today, she is a broodmare in Lexington foaling tomorrow’s champions. She recently gave birth to her first foal — a Tapit colt — this year. Bradley returns to Ellis Park each summer to train and race his future stars. He has claimed four training titles at the track, and hopes to secure another this year. Last year, Fred, Buff, and Hurst won the winning owners title at Ellis.
“(Groupie Doll is) probably one of the greatest horses that has ever stepped foot on this track,” says Dan Bork, racing secretary at Ellis Park. “As much as the family, Buff, his father, have supported this track, running in the Gardenia twice, she won the race as a three year old and finished third the second time she ran — she has won Eclipse Awards — if there is going to be a track naming a race in her honor, it’s right here. It’s our one graded stakes race. I really thought it was the right thing to do and everyone we spoke with agreed. This gets to honor her and her family.”
For more information about Ellis Park, call 812-425-1456 or visit ellisparkracing.com.