From the time I wandered the barns at Keeneland and encountered a striking chestnut filly in October 2011 to visiting her at the farm during a rest from track life in 2013 and until she stormed home in her final race in February 2014, trainer Buff Bradley was there for almost every step of the way.
Her name, of course, is Groupie Doll, and she is an amazing testament to the fact that a good horse can come from anywhere – a large or small operation- but especially can be found in the hands of a good horseman. And that is exactly what Buff Bradley is, basically having been born into the game and learning from his father, Fred.
At the time I went through the Keeneland barns that sunny October day in 2011, it was to get another glimpse of the retired Brass Hat. I had followed the hugely popular gelding on the Kentucky circuit for some time, including one memorable day when he won a stakes race and was taken into the Keeneland winners’ circle on the turf, reserved for stakes winners, and then into the regular winners’ circle too. It was an impromptu occurrence due to his immense popularity. Calvin Borel was even boosted back aboard bareback for fans to get more photos.
So when I heard he was at the barn with the Bradley stable, though retired, I went to see him. In a sense it was like visiting an old friend. Buff Bradley was there, at the end of the day as the routine was winding down and the horses were being settle for the evening. The timing was excellent to get a good visit with the horses, and I was given peppermints to feed Brass Hat.
As it turned out, that visit turned out to be the beginning of a deep-rooted interest in Groupie Doll’s career, and an affection for her. For she was in the stall next to Brass Hat, and her bearing and the look in her eye caught my attention. I took a few photos of her because she was so striking. I remember that day so well, not just because of how striking she looked, but because of Buff Bradley’s comment about her.
I had watched him guide Brass Hat’s career to great heights, and so his summation of his horses carried a lot of weight with me.
He told me that I should take her picture because she was going to be the next champion, meaning for his stable no doubt.
I looked at her once more and mused on what he had said. I read the name on her halter’s brass plate:
Groupie Doll. I made a mental note to remember her name and his assessment, to follow her career. It is always intriguing to encounter a horse before he or she becomes widely known, and get a glimpse into the horse’s potential like that.
At that time, she had already had some wins and a stakes win, so no doubt her potential was evident. She had just not been on my radar until that moment.
From then on, the rest is history. She became a tour-de-force in graded-stakes sprints on the Kentucky circuit and elsewhere. I got to see her run quite a few times at Keeneland, and become the champion Buff Bradley had pegged her as due to her dominance among sprinting mares and two consecutive Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint wins.
It was on a hiatus before she launched her 2013 campaign that I and a few friends went to visit her at the Bradleys’ Frankfort farm before she went back to the track. It was quite generous of them to open the farm to visitors. I covered that visit in another blog post, but it is briefly worth revisiting.
That was my first moment up close to her since I was introduced to her in 2011. Yet this was better, more relaxed, as she wasn’t at the track and in training. She had the run of a field with her buddy Brass Hat, who has been described as keeping her fit and almost training her as they romp in the paddock. We were given peppermint nuggets to feed them both, and at the end of our visit, Buff Bradley came over to say hi and we talked to him a bit about her. I hadn’t expected to see him, as we had been shown around by a farm employee and he had not been there. It was wonderful to again be welcomed by him and see him watch his champions in the field with a practiced and proud eye. He was there for his star mare, once more. Their bond throughout her career clearly transcended the usual trainer and horse bond, even as close as that can be with a horse that is in the shedrow for years. It was probably rooted not just in Groupie Doll’s prowess on the track, a shining list of achievements for any trainer to be proud of, but for how she was a product of his own breeding program and a horse he had helped guide to these great heights for his father, who launched his beginnings in the sport.
This was perhaps most evident after Groupie Doll’s 2013 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, presumed to be her last race. He had to fight back tears in the winners’ circle while accepting her trophy, which kept his speech short yet was a fitting tribute to how far she had taken him and his father. Her impending retirement and departure from his care after all those years and what she had meant to his dad was an emotional moment. It still hits me to see him have to blink back tears when I watch the replay. For along the way, even from afar most of the time, I came to love his compact, well-built chestnut champion.
Prior to her start in the race, Bradley had already explained the decision to sell her, to fund the rest of his racing program and to give her the best chance to excel as a broodmare and go to the top sires. It was evident he loved her, and made even more clear for making that decision to give her every chance to succeed in her next career. I would expect no less from him, having been there with her every step of the way.
I went to see her at Keeneland prior to her sale. She looked as calm and collected as any horse could be as she stood in the November sun, just a few days after her Breeders’ Cup win. She held a pose for the photographers gathered around, a study in stillness and every bit as stunning and eye-catching as the day I had first seen her at that track, several years and far fewer races ago, but with all the potential within still evident. It was to be my goodbye, before she took up her broodmare duties and private life.
Her Breeders’ Cup saddlecloth, dirt-streaked, was draped across a table in front of the barn where she was stabled, along with a basket of buttons with her likeness on them and a bag of peppermints for her. I watched as she was led from the sun into the dark and stillness of her stall, and turned to go myself. It had been good to see her again.
I read the news of her sale a short while later, how Buff and Fred Bradley both followed her to the sales ring with a contingent of fans also present for the same reasons I had been.
She ended up being purchased by Mandy Pope, who had been adding elite racemares to her broodmare band recently, for $3.1 million. After the sale, it was noted in a Blood-Horse article that Buff Bradley went to thank Pope and give her his business card.
As the Blood-Horse reported, they also had this conversation right after the sale.
“I’ll tell you one thing, she’s a fan favorite,” Bradley told Pope. “Everybody loves her.”
“I wish I’d been out in California to see her, but I was busy here working,” Pope said.
“She loves peppermints,” Bradley added.
“Okay, we’ll have plenty of peppermints and carrots, I’m sure,” replied Pope, smiling broadly.
“She eats carrots, too, but she loves peppermints,” said Bradley, “and she’s full. I’ll tell you right now, she’s full.”
That was expected to be the parting of the ways between Bradley and his champion, and the end of a great journey on the track, though he’d likely visit her on the farm as time allowed. It was a fitting sendoff.
Yet Mandy Pope had talked to fans prior to the sale and listened to Buff Bradley as well. Seeing how fit Groupie Doll looked, she had her checked over thoroughly by a vet who declared her perfectly fit to race. So she headed back to the track, again in Bradley’s shedrow and sporting the colors of Mandy Pope’s stable. It was a great sporting gesture to give fans a few more opportunities to see her race.
She tried the Cigar Mile again against males at the end of November, finishing fourth.
While she remains in light training at last report – though possibly just to ease her down from being race-fit – what is likely to be her actual last race came February 9, 2014, in the Hurricane Bertie Stakes at Gulfstream Park. It was one more flash of brilliance in her race career.
Yet as the race started, she settled 10 lengths behind the rest of the field, beginning to make up ground only near the top of the stretch. She loomed formidably on the outside at that point, and track announcer Larry Collmus said, “Rajiv Maragh lets her loose one last time, and look at her take off. She was dead last up the backstretch but Groupie Doll goes out in glory at Gulfstream!”
She won by six lengths, just slightly missing setting a track record. She looked like every bit the calm collected pro I saw at Keeneland posing for photographers in November.
HRTV interviewed Bradley after her win. “People said you know this is bittersweet. It’s really not that bittersweet. I know where she’s going. I know I’ll get to see her.”
Interviewer Caton Bredar wrapped up with, “It’s one thing to put a plan in motion and another one to execute. It’s been executed perfectly. Congratulations.”
I couldn’t have summed it up better. Thinking back to that day I met Groupie Doll, Bradley did already have the plan laid out, and it was a pleasure to discover that the plan had indeed been perfectly executed.
She was a horse that captivated me from the first time I saw her, and that effect never waned. I too would like to congratulate the Bradleys and their former ownership partners in the mare, as well as Mandy Pope for all they achieved with her on the track.
Here’s to a long healthy retirement for Groupie Doll. She will be in good company.
Her next chapter has already begun, as she arrived in Kentucky in late February, to be bred to Tapit shortly afterwards according to the Daily Racing Form.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgLsCJIQchc. Breeders’ Cup World Championships. “2013 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint – Groupie Doll.”
Oakford, Glenye Cain. “Groupie Doll Biggest Star of Keeneland Day 2.” Blood-Horse. November 6, 2013.
Angst,Frank. “Mandy Pope Purchases Groupie Doll for $3.1 Million.” Blood-Horse. November 6, 2013.
Shinar, Jack. “New Owner to Run Groupie Doll in Cigar Mile.” Blood-Horse. November 8, 2013.
http://www.hrtv.com/videos/race-replay-2014-hurricane-bertie-stakes. HRTV. “Race Replay – 2014 Hurricane Bertie Stakes.”
http://www.hrtv.com/videos/buff-bradley-reflects-on-groupie-doll. HRTV. “Buff Bradley Reflects on Groupie Doll.” February 9, 2014.
DRF Breeding Staff. “Groupie Doll arrives in Kentucky, to be bred Saturday.” Daily Racing Form. February 27, 2014.