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    Jockey Calvin Borel felt something go horribly awry with the stride of his mount, The Player, entering the home stretch of the New Orleans Handicap on March 24, 2018, at Fair Grounds Race Course. Borel quickly pulled back on the reins and eased the strapping, five-year-old bay colt to a halt. Frankfort-based trainer Buff Bradley’s heart had risen to the proximity of his throat by this time, but he waited for the last horses to cross the wire before tossing his sport coat to a member of the gate crew and sprinting a hundred yards or so to join Borel and the broken horse he’d bred and trained, but mostly loved.

    By the time Bradley arrived, the track ambulance and veterinarian were on the scene. It wasn’t just bad news; it was the worst. The Player had suffered a catastrophic injury to his right foreleg, and putting him down right there would have been nothing more than standard operating procedure in most cases. A more hesitant trainer might get the horse back to the barn before reaching the same conclusion, but the inevitable seemed to loom.

    Complicating the impending doom was Bradley’s personal connection to the charismatic runner. He bred the horse at the family’s Frankfort farm, Indian Ridge, and owned both the horse’s mother and grandmother. To talk with Bradley for even a few minutes is to understand that he’s an aw-shucks throwback to a simpler time. He’s all manners, all class. The son of former Kentucky Sen. Fred Bradley, William “Buff” Bradley, now 55, took a shine to the horses from an early age, and seemingly never lost the innocence of a farm boy — perhaps a tribute to never working a day doing something he didn’t love. Despite his dad’s chagrin, Bradley chose a career in horse racing just after college, going to work as an assistant for Clarence Picou, who trained many Bradley horses over the years.

    By 1989, Bradley was training horses on his own, and he has always filled his barn with an eclectic cast of Thoroughbreds, consisting of a few homebreds along with horses he trains for other owners. A look at Bradley’s small to mid-size stable will usually feature every kind of horse, from cheap claimers to stakes-caliber. The recently divorced Bradley has three children, ranging in age from 15 to 24, and he points out that the seven-day-a-week schedule and nomadic existence of a horse trainer is tough on the family life.

    But heartache in the racing game isn’t just limited to the domestic side of things — it’s all around you, every day. Backsides are littered with hardened souls. Most have an attachment to the animals they work with, but with that affection comes a detachment that is necessary for survival. These contradictions go on and on. You’ve got to be optimistic while knowing the worst is always just around the corner, and pessimistic while hoping for the best. As Bradley planted his heels in the Fair Grounds dirt, he said to himself, “This’ll be it.” No more racing. No more training. No more enjoyment from the game that had given him so much. It may have been better to have never loved at all.


    There are trainers and there are horsemen. Buff Bradley is both, and from the minute The Player was pulled from Hour Queen’s womb at Indian Ridge, a bond began to form.

    Hour Queen belonged to the Bradleys and longtime family friend Carl Hurst, and so too had her mother, Town Queen. The Player — one of 21,429 foals born in the United States in 2013, according to Jockey Club statistics — was the result of Hour Queen’s breeding with Street Hero, a son of Street Cry just like 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense. Even so, people weren’t lining up to breed to Street Hero.

    To put this in perspective, breeding a horse and training a horse are as segmented and disparate a pair of occupations as the manufacturing and selling of automobiles. You specialize in one or the other, and almost no one does both.

    The Player was steeped in Bradley family tradition and remembrances but didn’t have a pedigree that would have commanded attention in the commercial sales ring. Essentially, all racehorses are bred with the hope to make money, by selling, racing or breeding them. But a Bradley homebred is part racehorse, part family. If things don’t work out on the track or in the breeding shed, there’s always a place on the farm.

    From the first few steps on spindly legs, The Player was a funny little guy. His package of idiosyncrasies and quirks were as odd as they were concerning. When The Player was less than 48 hours old, Bradley consulted doctors about a fever, and when the colt was about two weeks old, Bradley noticed his affinity for sitting back on his haunches like a dog — a peculiar habit that would eventually endear him further to the legions of fans he’d accumulate. “We actually thought something was neurologically wrong,” Bradley says. “But we had him checked thoroughly and the vet said, ‘nah, this guy is a rock star.’” Bradley’s ex-wife, Kim, who still works with him today, had a penchant for naming horses after musicians and gave the colt the pet name Angus, after AC/DC guitarist Angus Young. The Player’s formal name was a tribute to his playful disposition.

    A rock star perhaps, but The 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, The Player had a pillow, which he used daily because, Bradley says, they considered him at least part human. “Just a super-smart horse,” Bradley is fond of saying.

    The 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: This horse is all right.” The 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 something special. Even if The Player was far back, Bradley says, “he came flying late.”

    At Churchill Downs in May 2016, The Player cruised to his first win. For handicappers like me, the speed figures told the story. This 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 The Player for nearly a full year. In keeping with his penchant for overcoming 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. These 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.

    The 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 occupation, you’re thrilled to get a graded win. Doing so with both is something only Buff Bradley really understands. Before The 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, The 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 The Player looked intent on delivering. When the gates opened, The Player sprinted to the lead from his inside post. Roughly halfway through the race, though, something didn’t seem right — especially for an elite horse seemingly on top of his game. The pace was mild, but The Player was tapping out early. “I knew right then that something was off,” Bradley says. “Those fraction (times) weren’t fast enough to make him back up like that.”

    By the head of the stretch, The Player was last. Moments later, Borel pulled up. Panic ensued. The 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 The 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. Those words would always ring true.

    Back at the barn, the outlook was bleak. The 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. “The truth is, we don’t see many horses with these types of injuries at LSU because they never make it to us,” McCauley says. “They are almost always euthanized on the track.”

    Bradley with The Player during recovery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

    To be clear, a racehorse is rarely saved for sentimental reasons. Surgeries are expensive. Recoveries are long. Outlooks are bleak. The aftermath of a major surgical procedure on the injured leg of a thousand-pound, high-strung racehorse is fraught with complication. Horses don’t make good hospital patients. They 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 The Player’s procedure as “uncomplicated” — that’s most problematic, but rather the aftercare.

    The 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. That 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 The 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 The Player. But quickly, the big Frankfort homebred with the blond mane and unusual personality ingratiated himself in Baton Rouge. “With him, it was kind of hard not to form a personal connection,” McCauley says with a laugh. “My kids were in there feeding him peppermints.” The Player charmed the hell out of everyone he met, and called on his innate idiosyncrasies to pull him through. “What he did that helped him so much is lay down for hours and hours and hours,” McCauley says. “That can make or break things with laminitis. Everybody loved him — the tech staff, the students on rotation. I follow him on Facebook still.”

    That’s right, The Player is a sensation on social media. His story caught on quickly among racing fans and horse lovers. And when it came time to bring The Player back to Kentucky, Bradley was along for the ride — literally in the back of the van again with The Player. Bradley rode 800 miles in a horse trailer from Baton Rouge to Frankfort, and documented segments of the journey to post on Facebook. At one point, Bradley questioned the driver in traffic around Nashville. “Angus and I wanna know why the hell we’re slowin’ down.” On video, The Player looks calm and happy, the wind from an open window whipping through his mane. And every once in a while, he nods his head up and down rapidly, which seems to be code for “more peppermints please.” Bradley, playing the role of the doting flight attendant, obliges.

    One of The Player’s fans on Facebook offered the weary travelers quarter as they made their journey back to Kentucky. The farm had a stabling area for The Player, and when the host wouldn’t hear of Bradley and his driver getting a hotel down the road, they crashed in a guest bedroom.

    The Player today on all fours in Crestwood.

    I meet The Player on March 1, 2019. His temporary breeding residence is Crestwood Farm in Lexington. (For breeding purposes, Indian Ridge houses mares, not stallions.) That right front leg is healthy enough to make it possible for little Players to be born. Less than a year from his breakdown in New Orleans, the whole story seems more than a little uncanny.

    Crestwood, too, is a family-owned operation, and second-generation horseman Marc McLean shows me around the farm on this cold and damp Friday morning. He coaxes The Player out of his stall. The horse is imposing, but stoic. He’s got the usual rambunctiousness of a stallion, but it’s all controlled energy. He tugs playfully at the lead shank and gazes off into the distance.

    The Player arrived at Crestwood Jan. 8 and hasn’t actually bred a mare yet. He is just learning the ropes. There’s a daily routine, including being “presented” mares to excite his libido. The laid-back McLean explains that male horses on the racetrack are often taught not to exhibit breeding behaviors, so all the practice and preparation is as if to say, “Help yourself, big guy. You’ve earned it.”

    “He acts like he’s lived here his whole life,” McClean says. “He’s just so easy on himself – he’s such a smart horse.” That disposition surely saved his life.

    The Player’s repaired right foreleg is easily double the size of its three counterparts, thanks to the surgical hardware, but he moves comfortably enough. In fact, he’s still able to perform an occasional jog and trot while being turned out in his spacious paddock. There are a few special considerations for those tasked with his daily care, but mostly The Player is treated like every other stallion at Crestwood. The future plans for the horse are tentative and modest: Breed a few mares this season, then reunite with Bradley in Frankfort. And as they say: When you set something free and it comes back to you, it’s yours forever.

    This originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "The Charmer." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters,

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