Louisville Magazine

APR 2019

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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82 LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 4.19 A rock star perhaps, but e Player always showed a proclivity for leisure. He'd frequently enjoy naps in his stall with his head sticking out from under the gate. He'd casually nibble some hay and take notice of the happenings around him. To accommodate this habit, e Player had a pillow, which he used daily because, Brad- ley says, they considered him at least part human. "Just a super-smart horse," Bradley is fond of saying. e Player would continue to develop in those early years, but Bradley had no idea whether or not the horse was actually any good. When it came time to run, though, he proved more than capable. "When he started breezing," Bradley recalls, "it was like: is horse is all right." e Player ran a decent fourth in his debut as a two- year-old in September 2015, but when he returned to the races as a much-improved three-year-old, Bradley knew he had some- thing special. Even if e Player was far back, Bradley says, "he came flying late." At Churchill Downs in May 2016, e Player cruised to his first win. For handicappers like me, the speed figures told the story. is horse was fast. He defeated allowance horses for another win at Churchill and ran a credible race in the Grade 2 Indiana Derby while suffering a close loss to a well-regarded Bob Baffert horse named Cupid, who went on to earn over $1.7 million on the track. After the Indiana Derby, a knee surgery sidelined e Player for nearly a full year. In keeping with his penchant for over- coming adversity, he came back in late June 2017 and promptly demonstrated that he hadn't lost a step, running a close third against a quality field in the Kelly's Landing Stakes at Churchill. From there, he ran second in the Grade 3 Ack Ack Stakes in September (also at Churchill) and, a month later, broke through with a career-defining victory in the Grade 2 Fayette Stakes at Keeneland. To put the difficulty of earning a graded-stakes win in its proper context: 37,678 races took place in the United States in 2017, and only 464 of them were graded-stakes events. ese limited opportunities are further restricted by horse gender and age, racing surface and distance, meaning that even elite-level equine athletes only have a handful of opportunities to stamp themselves as graded-stakes winners in their respective divisions of competition. e odds of winning a graded-stakes race while training a horse you also bred? Infinitesimally small to the point of being a statistical anomaly. Remember that trainers aren't breeders and breeders aren't trainers. If you belong to either occupa- tion, you're thrilled to get a graded win. Doing so with both is something only Buff Bradley really understands. Before e Player, there were Groupie Doll and Brass Hat — both graded-stakes winners, both Bradley homebreds. Groupie Doll was wildly successful by any measure of racetrack success, winning the 2012 and 2013 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Bradley actually delivered Groupie Doll himself on the farm. In searching the annals of racing, I can't locate another person who bred, owned and trained a horse — let alone three — to graded victories. Call it Bradleyesque. Heading into the 2018 New Orleans Handicap, e Player was at the top of his game, and one of the best dozen or so dirt horses in training. He'd nearly set a track record in his most recent start, winning the Fair Grounds' Mineshaft Handicap in a gallop. Bradley expected big things and e Player looked intent on delivering. When the gates opened, e Player sprinted to the lead from his inside post. Roughly half- way through the race, though, something didn't seem right — especially for an elite horse seemingly on top of his game. e pace was mild, but e Player was tapping out early. "I knew right then that something was off," Bradley says. "ose fraction (times) weren't fast enough to make him back up like that." By the head of the stretch, e Player was last. Moments later, Borel pulled up. Panic ensued. e Player buckled to the keen and poignant agonies of fractured sesamoids (bones in the ankle joint) and ample soft-tissue damage. When Bradley arrived, he insisted on handling things himself. "I told (the veterinary staff), 'He's my horse, and I want to be with him.'" With that, Bradley was inside the van with e Player. A Frankfort farm boy enclosed in the darkest of spaces in Cajun country. "It might sound corny, but when I was in that van with him, I told him, 'Buddy, you do everything you can and I'll do everything I can,'" Bradley says, his voice cracking. ose words would always ring true. Back at the barn, the outlook was bleak. e track vet suggested that surgery might be an option, and Bradley was determined to do the best thing for the horse no matter how difficult the decision. When Louisiana State University's director of veterinary clinical services, Dr. Charles McCauley, got the call, he was at his son's baseball game. He studied the X-rays on his phone and thought surgery was viable, even though he considered long-term recovery a 50/50 proposition. McCauley likened the severity of the injury to that of the ill-fated 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. "e truth is, we don't see many horses with these types of injuries at LSU because they never make it to us," McCauley says. "ey are almost always euthanized on the track." To be clear, a racehorse is rarely saved for sentimental reasons. Surgeries are expensive. Recoveries are long. Outlooks are bleak. e aftermath of a major surgical procedure on the injured leg of a thousand-pound, high-strung racehorse is fraught with com- plication. Horses don't make good hospital patients. ey don't like bed rest and can't be convinced to sit back and watch Netflix with the afflicted limb propped in the air for maximal convalescence. Laminitis, the nasty hoof disease that eventually claimed Barbaro and Secretariat, results most often in these cases from the uncomfortable horse shifting weight to the other limbs, causing soft tissue within the hoof to weaken and die. In other words, it's rarely the surgery itself — McCauley describes e Player's procedure as "uncomplicated" — that's most problematic, but rather the aftercare. e Player would have one major surgery and several minor procedures to manage different post-operative issues. (Bradley wouldn't disclose the cost. When I asked if it was as least as much as his share for a Grade 2 stakes win, he said yes. at could put the amount at more than $100,000.) Bradley was a mainstay at LSU in the beginning, but eventually he had to get back to his job and other horses. He'd check in for daily updates, his thoughts never far from e Player's recovery. Some days, he feared the worst. In total, the horse would spend 178 days at LSU, in a veritable IC unit for much of the time. Like most horse trainers, equine medical personnel tend to be hardened by exposure to the worst possible scenarios. Unlike Bradley, however, the LSU staff had no natural personal connections to e Player. But quickly, the big Frankfort homebred

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