Buff Bradley, who campaigned champion Groupie Doll, is retiring from training at the conclusion of the Churchill Downs 2021 Spring Meet. Photo courtesy of Penelope Miller/ABR.

Trainer Bradley Ready to Retire, but Not Walk Away, from the Thoroughbred Industry

By Alicia Hughes

The life of a Thoroughbred trainer is unlike any other in the sporting landscape, mostly because there is never a time when the demands on their time comes to a halt.

Three hundred sixty-five days a year, those who make caring for race horses their vocation get up and get to work trying to unearth success from a collection of bloodlines – some regal, some pedestrian, all of whom offer zero in the way of guarantees. Those who sign up for such a profession often form the kind of bonds developed only by those who share the most unique of experiences.

Which is why Buff Bradley’s emotions cut his words off at the pass as he tried to articulate what he will miss most once he goes through that routine for the last time.

“I’m getting a little emotional now,” Bradley said this week, tears welling at the thought of what was coming down on June 25. “I think just the comradery with all my friends and my people on the backside, you know. I love it back there. Just the day-to-day things: getting up early and getting to the track, I always lived for doing that. It’s a way of life. 

“I love everybody on the backside because they do what I do. They have a love for it, and they get up early and bust their butt seven days a week. I’m going to miss that.”

Bradley’s love for the sport of Thoroughbred racing has never waned. The business side of the industry, however, has weighed heavy on the native of Frankfort, Ky. in recent years. With the burden of trying to keep pace as a small operation steadily eating away at what he took the most joy in, the 57-year-old Bradley will retire from training on Friday after saddling Tonal Impact in fifth race at Churchill Downs. 

While he only announced plans to disband his stable last month, the decision to step away from training is one Bradley has given considerable thought to over the past couple years. His successes in the sport were massive as he and his late father, Fred, campaigned two-time champion female sprinter Groupie Doll as well as Grade 1 winner and multi-millionaire Brass Hat. Even though his family proved their homegrown operation could produce top-level runners, too many intangibles that came with trying to run a modest-sized stable in this day and age made it increasingly difficult to remain financially viable and personally satiated.

“Things have really changed in the business and I’m not keeping up with the changes,” Bradley said. “Things are better in some ways with business, but I don’t think it’s good for the smaller trainers. The purses have gotten good but if you’ve got a stable, you better be playing the claiming game because you’ll lose all your horses and you won’t have anything. It’s just hard to keep up that way, and with the help situation. 

“There are just a lot of things that have gone into it that have really led me down this path and to move towards changing careers and what I want to do. I’ve just kind of lost…I’ve lost the fun part of the business side of it. I still love going to the barn in the morning, getting up early and seeing my horses. But all the other things have changed. It’s time to look for something else.”

Here’s what never changed where Bradley is concerned – the hands-on horsemanship ingrained in him by his father and the fortitude to stick with the program they fostered together over the course of four decades. Though he deadpans that he walks away having crafted “an okay career”, what Bradley and his father achieved is a testament to what integrity, skill, and faith can conquer in a sport that tests all such attributes on a daily basis.

Fred Bradley, left, with his son Buff Bradley, right. Churchill Downs photo.

A former brigadier general, attorney, and state senator, Fred Bradley was also a consummate horseman, purchasing the property that is Indian Ridge Farm in 1967. Having grown up prepping mares and breaking babies on his family’s operation, William “Buff” Bradley went out on his own as a trainer 1993 with his father as his main client. In an effort to get some stock capable of running on the Kentucky circuit, Fred Bradley told his son they were heading to the Keeneland September Yearling sale in 1996 to shop. His total budget was $10,000 – a figure that initially made the younger Bradley less than optimistic, but one that ended up securing their future for years to come.

“I think it was probably my second year of training where (my father) said ‘We’ve got to get you going with some horses from here’ and we go to the Keeneland sale to buy a couple,” Bradley recalled. “I didn’t say anything for a few days and then I finally said, ‘Well how much money do we have to spend on these yearlings?’ and he said ‘$10,000’. Well, we bought two horses, one for $4,000 and one for $5,000. The one we bought for $5,000 ended up being Brass Hat’s dam (Brassy). That started it all right there.”

In the decade that preceded Fred Bradley’s death in May 2016, he got to watch his son showcase to the industry the astute hand he had when it came to cultivating talent. 

Their homebred gelding Brass Hat put the family on the map when he captured the 2006 Donn Handicap (G1), the highlight of a career that saw the son of Prized earn more than $2.1 million over seven seasons of racing. Barely a month after Brass Hat was retired in May 2011, another horse-of-a-lifetime started to emerge as the Bradleys’ homebred filly Groupie Doll broke her maiden at Churchill Downs – the first victory in a career that would produce consecutive triumphs in the 2012 and 2013 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1), divisional honors in both seasons, and one of the most emotional scenes ever in the Keeneland sales pavilion when she sold to Mandy Pope’s Whisper Hill Farm for $3.1 million at the 2013 November Breeding Stock Sale. 

Groupie Doll’s pricetag that afternoon represented not just the highest figure of the session, but the continuation of real life for her connections. It meant that fencing on Indian Ridge Farm got built, that the Bradleys’ longtime partners Carl Hurst and Brent Burns could continue to reinvest.

It meant the Bradleys were recognized and rewarded by the industry for everything they had poured into it over the decades. 

“All that was very special to me, knowing that the last 10 years of my father’s life, he lived the dream of having a few good horses,” Bradley said. “Because that was his thing in life, he loved the horses. I always said if we didn’t have Brass Hat, we would have never had Groupie Doll. We just kind of built it along.

“And yeah, my father and I…we had to do all the other work on the farm at the time to have the horses. We did all the fencing. We trained on the farm and got horses ready to go to the racetrack. But it all worked out.”

Groupie Doll with Rajiv Maragh aboard wins the $1 Million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint on November 3, 2012 at Santa Anita Park. Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Gary Bogdon.

Only weeks before Fred Bradley’s passing in May 2016, his son celebrated another Grade 1 triumph as he saddled Gunpowder Farms’ Divisidero to victory in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs, a race he would defend one year later. Fittingly, one of the final horses the father-son duo would breed together along with Hurst was a quirky chestnut colt named The Player, a son of Street Hero who became a barn favorite due to his sweet personality and penchant for sitting on his haunches like a family retriever.

Nicknamed “Angus”, The Player would also become a lasting example of the Bradleys’ diligence where their horses were concerned. One race after notching his second career graded stakes triumph, The Player fractured two sesamoid bones in his right front during the 2018 New Orleans Handicap (G2). After greenlighting surgery that saw a plate and 16 screws inserted into the colt’s leg, Bradley continued to spare no expense in the quest to ensure his charge’s recovery and quality of life, finally bringing The Player home to Indian Ridge Farm that September and ultimately having him join the stallion roster at Crestwood Farm.

Statistics show Bradley with 575 career winners from more than 5,600 starters but even as he prepares to close his shedrow, he is still seeking out ways to remain productive in the sport. He plans to stay in as an owner and breeder at a reduced level in partnership with Hurst and he would like to get a position with a racetrack that would allow him to utilize the experience he has absorbed over the years.

“I feel like I know a lot of what goes on on the backside and I’ve been a lot of committees and…I would like to be somewhere in between that, helping the relationship between the frontside and the backside,” Bradley said. “They should have working together as a team and making things work that way, and that is something I would really like to do. I like dealing with people. That would be ideal. I don’t have to stay in the horse industry, but I think that is where my talents would be best used at.”

Buff Bradley the horseman isn’t going anywhere. He will continue to breed and foal a mare or two a year and he still gets a kick out of watching Brass Hat, now a pasture ornament at Indian Ridge, stretch those now 20-year-old legs alongside his buddy King of Speed, who himself earned more than $590,000 on the track.

He knows the time has come, though, to add a new chapter to the kind of success story only Thoroughbred racing can produce. And as much as Bradley will miss the routine that has fed his soul for so long, it will pale in comparison to how deeply the backstretch will feel the loss of a figure who represented its heartbeat.

“I mean, I’m happy with my decision,” Bradley said. “I’m just not happy I had to make it.”