A few weeks back the office phone rang and Mark Story, the talented columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, was on the other end of the line. He wanted to talk about horses and horse people.
Thatâ€™s always a good thing.
This particular call from Mark is an annual visit, as he works to make sure his team looks at all possible equine and human candidates before sending out a list of candidates for consideration to the Herald-Leaderâ€™s annual â€œKentucky Sportsman of the Year.â€
Despite a very strong year in racing, the sport has virtually no chance to be represented at the top of that poll in a year during which John Calipariâ€™s Kentucky Wildcats, led by the phenomenal Anthony Davis, won an NCAA championship in a Final Four that included a head-to-head matchup with a Louisville team coached by Rick Pitino.
Many racing heroes of 2012 that deserve consideration in that group, as a look at the Kentucky-heavy roster of finalists for the Eclipse Awards that honor the top equine and human stars would imply. Despite Kentuckyâ€™s struggling racing economics and growing competitive pressure from gambling and racing competition in states that benefit from revenues produced by other forms of gaming, 2012 was an impressive and, perhaps, a vintage year racing participants based in the Commonwealth.
Louisville-born Dale Romans, favored to earn his first Eclipse Award as racingâ€™s top trainer, looms large â€“ although, after a weight-loss regimen that has seen him drop more than 50 pounds, he does not loom as large as he once did. Romans enjoyed what was easily the greatest season in his 27-year training career as he won Grade I races with Shackleford, Little Mike, Dullahan and Tapitsfly and his stable earned nearly $12 million.
Australian-born and Churchill Downs-based Ian Wilkes earned the biggest victory of his career when Fort Larned notched a front-running upset in the $5 million Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
Lexington-based trainer Charles Lopresti and his biggest star, the likely â€œHorse of the Yearâ€ Wise Dan, enjoyed stellar seasons and each deserved consideration in the annual poll. Lopresti has gotten more out of a stable that usually consists of only 16 to 20 horses in recent years than anyone in memory. His work with Wise Dan, winner of the Breedersâ€™ Cup Mile and the likely winner of the gold Eclipse Award presented to the American â€œHorse of the Year,â€ must be considered the highlight, to this point, of his soaring career. Wise Dan dominated the division of grass milers â€“ a group that has never produced the top horse in the U.S. That fact is a testament to his excellence and talent in a year in which he won all but one of his races.
Jockeys Brian Hernandez Jr., a young Louisiana-born veteran who was aboard Fort Larned in the Breedersâ€™ Cup, and Rosie Napravnik, who made history on the first Friday in May at Churchill Downs when her victory aboard Believe You Can made her the first woman to ride a winner of the Kentucky Oaks, also enjoyed signature seasons.
Other Kentuckians who had very good years in 2012 included members the Starlight Racing partnership that raced unbeaten Shanghai Bobby, the presumptive 2-year-old champion and early favorite for Kentucky Derby 139. They include Louisville-born managing partner Jack Wolf and the Louisville father-son team of Ed and Clinton Glasscock. Former Gov. Brereton Jones, the owner-breeder of Believe You Can, was the owner and breeder of the Kentucky Oaks winner for a second time.
While the Herald-Leaderâ€™s annual â€œSportsmanâ€ voting does not allow for team recogniation, this would have been a good year to launch that precedent as the story the looms as Kentuckyâ€™s best racing saga of 2012 was a vintage â€œit takes a villageâ€ saga.
It is the story of the family racing/breeding operation behind Groupie Doll, winner of the Breedersâ€™ Cup Filly & Mare sprint and a presumptive winner of the Eclipse Award that will be presented this weekend to Americaâ€™s top female sprinter. It would fit nicely under any description of Kentuckyâ€™s â€œSportsmanâ€ or sports story of the year.
While the marvelous 4-year-old filly was at the center of a spotlight did its heavy-lifting on the track, the father-and-son duo of Fred and trainer Buff Bradley, who bred and raced Groupie Doll on the Bradley family farm in Frankfort, is its heart and soul of the operation.
It seemed a few years back that Team Bradleyâ€™s â€œhorse of a lifetimeâ€ would certainly be Brass Hat, a homebred gelding who became a Grade I stakes winner and an international competitor who ran second in the rich Dubai World Cup. When Brass Hat returned to the farm after retiring from racing with a bankroll that exceeded $2 million, his career seemed the ultimate reward for the familyâ€™s long devotion to racing and breeding.
But shortly after Brass Hat settled in his home paddock, another homebred â€“ Groupie Doll â€“ was on the track and displaying considerable promise.
Under Buffâ€™s guidance, Groupie Doll has, in two years of competition, emerged as one of Americaâ€™s top racing stars.Â She has a record of 9-4-2 from 17 races with earnings of $1,657,850. The younger Bradley outfitted his promising filly with blinkers last spring and the equipment change sharpened her focus and propelled her to a new level of success. She reeled off five consecutive stakes victories, capped by her thoroughly dominant triumph in the Breedersâ€™ Cup. She ended the year with a head-bob loss to Stay Thirsty in her first run against males in the Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.Â She led in that race one jump before the finish line and the one that followed.
Now Groupie Doll is odds-on to add an Eclipse Award to her trophy collection in Saturday nightâ€™s awards ceremonies in Miami.Â Brass Hat, good as he was, never came close to that type of honor.
Photos by REED PALMER PHOTOGRAPHY CHURCHILL DOWNS