Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 02, 2008

HALLANDALE BEACH - The horse owner got his start by paying $3 for a mule, selling it for $5 and thinking this was easy money.

Now 76, he'll tell you in his Kentucky drawl that was the last time he made a profit on a four-legged animal, punctuating it with a hearty laugh that confirms if there's a difference between a rich man and a rich life, he's quite content to align himself with the latter.

The horse, Brass Hat, got his big break when someone trying to buy him paid $100 to nominate him for a stakes race. When the buyer backed out of the deal, the horse remained in possession of his original owner, who couldn't bear to waste a good $100. Befitting of this script, the horse won.

The trainer, who also is the owner's son, sleeps in his barn to care for horses during foaling season and therefore has been with this horse "since his first breath." He says this is a once-in-a-lifetime horse but adds that even if the horse hadn't entered their lives, the family still couldn't complain.

Oh, and one other thing: "He's come off two career-ending injuries, basically," trainer Buff Bradley says of Brass Hat, the 7-year-old gelding owned by his father, Fred Bradley, and the sentimental choice for today's $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

Brass Hat, who is attempting to win the event for the second time in three years, has broken his right front leg twice. Both injuries kept him out 13 months, and the first injury was life-threatening.

"Man, I couldn't even talk," says Buff Bradley, 44. "I was in tears because I thought, 'Man, we've just got to save him so I could turn him out on the farm.' That's all I wanted to do, have him as a pet."

But sometimes, $3 mules turn into $5 mules. Sometimes - OK, maybe just this one time - a horse with a gimpy leg becomes a stakes winner, sets a record on the most historic track in American racing (Churchill Downs) and receives an offer of about $1.2 million from a sheik who thought the Bradleys would put a price on what Brass Hat has meant to them.

"When the silly money comes out, you usually need to sell," Buff says, the operative word being "usually." Fred Bradley said no, and not just because of Brass Hat's earning power. "At that point, it had gotten to be the emotional attachment," Buff says.

In a sport where someone recently paid $16 million for a dud named the Green Monkey, the Bradleys gladly place themselves and Brass Hat at the other end of the spectrum.

"That makes a good story," Fred says, and over the next several minutes he sums up a life with wildly varying twists, having served as a lawyer, state senator, judge, fighter pilot, Air Force general. In 1967, he paid $84,000 for a 320-acre farm in Frankfort, Ky. If you lived on that farm, you worked.

"We've all got bad backs from getting thrown from horses and everything else," says Fred, who quit riding horses recently because of his age ... then started riding again despite his age. "It's nothing," he says.

You get the picture. Son William, well, people called him Buffalo Bill until it was shortened to Buff, which is the only name people know him by anymore.

Dad paid him 25 cents a day to sweep the shed row when he was a tot, and unlike his brother and two sisters, Buff never missed the chance to tag along when his parents went to the races. "More fun than staying home and getting to tease the babysitter, I guess," Buff says.

While some trainers might grumble about the circus Kentucky Derby week can be, Buff, who has a barn at Churchill Downs, soaks up every minute of it even though he never has had a Derby horse. He especially enjoys seeing a small-time horseman step onto racing's biggest stage. Brass Hat matured too late to run for the roses, but his success still smells sweet.

"That's the neat part about it," Buff says. "While you always dream of having a horse like this, if you really think about it, it's going to be tough to get one. If you get one, No. 1, somebody's going to buy it and give it to (Todd) Pletcher or (Steve) Asmussen. So usually, a trainer of my stature is not going to get to keep a good horse, so you're never going to get to prove that you could train a good horse. Luckily, this one belonged to my father."

Fred paid $5,000 for Brass Hat's dam and got a $1,500 discount on his sire's $5,000 stud fee through his connections. Brass Hat's earnings on that $8,500 investment: $1,582,451.

It almost never happened. Brass Hat suffered a condylar fracture in October 2004.

"They said, 'Don't expect him to be the horse that he was,' " Buff says.

"Well, they were right. He was better."

Two years ago this week, Brass Hat came back to win the Donn Handicap in 1:47.79 over 11/8 miles, still a track record. "It's a dream," Buff said that rainy day, his eyes welling.

On July 8, 2007, it was replayed. Brass Hat, coming off a fractured sesamoid, won his first race back by outdueling Student Council to win a 11/16-mile allowance race in 1:41.27, a Churchill Downs record.

"If I thought there was any chance of him reinjuring himself, he wouldn't be on the racetrack today," Fred says. "Both of those injuries were in the same leg but entirely different places."

Truth is, Brass Hat is pampered through "equine therapy" to stimulate his muscles. It includes attaching a cap with red, glowing diodes to his head.

"He always enjoys it," Buff says.

In 2006, Brass Hat's success earned an invitation to the $6 million Dubai World Cup, the richest race in the world, but a second-place finish turned sour when Brass Hat was disqualified for having trace amounts of methylprednisolone, an anti-inflammatory drug.

In a failed appeal, Fred argued he administered the drug 28 days in advance rather than 23, as Dubai bylaws stated (in the United States, it can be given up to several days before races). He suspects Brass Hat simply assimilates the drug slowly. The $1.2 million the Bradleys lost is believed to be the costliest disqualification in thoroughbred history.

It still upsets the Bradleys, but little else does. Today, they're in a Grade I stakes race worth half a million. At 5-2, Daaher is the early favorite, but Brass Hat (5-1) will get plenty of action in the field of nine.

"You know it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing ... ," Buff says after treating the star of his barn to a handful of peppermints.

"We knew we could have gone our whole life without that - and wouldn't have complained."