Brass Hat almost back on track



The big horse purrs in the shade of his stall like a giant cat nodding off for a nap.

He yawns. He sighs. He wraps his chocolate-colored body in an arc of contentment surrounding the therapist delivering his spa treatment.

Life feels good to this horse named Brass Hat because he seems to feel so good on the road to his racing comeback.

In a most unusual return to competition, the 6-year-old is nearing a race after recovering from his second broken leg.

Luckier than Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, luckier than many other horses who died after suffering fractures or from complications resulting from injuries, Brass Hat is back on track.

He says with his body language that he's happy to be back and nearing a race. He's alert. He's nosy and involved in whatever might be going on around him.

Most of all, he appears to be pushing himself agreeably forward in the training drills that are picking up pace the closer he gets to his first race in more than a year.

And yes, he loves the spa treatments that accompany his training regimen. Like any athlete who ever wrapped up in a gym towel, Brass Hat enjoys the perks.

"We're all excited," says his trainer, William "Buff" Bradley, of Frankfort. He trains Brass Hat for his father, Fred Bradley, a former state senator who bred and owns the horse.

Buff Bradley says he has not picked out a race yet. But he hopes to run the gelding in an allowance race at Churchill Downs before the meet ends July 8, or in a stakes at Ellis Park.

The last the racing world saw of Brass Hat was June 17 last year when he dropped back from second in the stretch to fifth at the finish of the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

The disappointing race in Louisville followed an outstanding winter season when Brass Hat won three consecutive stakes races, then finished second in the $6 million Dubai World Cup (later disqualified over a medication mixup).

The morning he fractured an ankle, about two weeks after the Stephen Foster Handicap, was a nightmare revisited for Bradley. It was no different than the first time Brass Hat broke his leg in a race in 2004 in Texas, at Lone Star Park.

In Texas, Bradley knew as soon as his horse finished the race that something had gone seriously wrong. The horse was vanned off the track in an ambulance, the victim of a fractured cannon (shin) bone. By all rights, his career should have been finished.

It was not. Brass Hat underwent surgery. He recovered miraculously well. Almost a year and one month later, he had returned to racing. Despite finishing seventh in his first start, he rebounded to win his next three, all stakes races, including the Grade I Donn Handicap.

The injury of last summer occurred during a morning workout. Bradley saw the gelding take a few bad steps as he finished the work. The trainer had the same, sickening feeling he'd experienced in Texas.

This time the injury was a fractured sesamoid, or ankle. The injury occurred on the same leg as the previous fracture to the cannon bone, although Bradley says the two were not related. Brass Hat did not require surgery for the ankle injury.

And once more, he is returning to the races.

"My dad has never put any pressure on even bringing him back," Bradley said. "He said that if he wants to make it back, we'll know."

And so Brass Hat told them. With his body language. With his interest in what he was doing. With the beautiful way he developed athletic conditioning when he went back into training.

Now, all they need to do is fine-tune the workouts. And find the right race.

"We're expecting to run a big race but we're not going to be disappointed if he doesn't win, as long as he comes back good and healthy," Bradley said.

"I've had some vets tell me they don't come back that well, especially at that level," he added. "They told me that the first time it happened and he came back and won a Grade I. I think it's the horse, according to what the horse is."

And so the preparations continue. About twice every week, Brass Hat receives "maintenance" spa treatments from equine therapists Diane Bolz and Julia Helbling.

Treatments include ortho-bionomy, a form of therapy that uses gentle hand and body movements to ease stress in the body. The therapists also take Brass Hat through stretching exercises.

They apply a cap of red light diodes to the top of his head. They use electric muscle stimulation to relax his muscles and ultrasonic wave treatments to increase blood circulation: all treatments designed to prevent injuries by working on "tight" spots before they get so tight they hurt.

Brass Hat has been receiving spa treatments since he was 3 years old. All the horses in Bradley's barn receive some form of spa therapy to assist them in their athletic regimens.

Brass Hat relaxes to Helbling's hands. He is putting on his game face. Purring over the perks.

Even if he is a horse.