Brass Hat sets track record in return

Garry Jones photo

by Steve Bailey

Trainer Buff Bradley admitted being nervous as he walked from the Churchill Downs paddock to the racetrack for Grade 1 winner Brass Hat's first start in nearly 13 months following a leg injury.

A few minutes later, Bradley was celebrating with half of Frankfort, Kentucky, in the winner's circle as the six-year-old Prized gelding battled Student Council stride for stride through the stretch before surging ahead for a dramatic victory by a head in a 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claiming race at the historic Louisville track on Sunday.

As he walked from the paddock to the apron, greeting well-wishers every few steps along the way, Bradley said he hoped to see the old Brass Hat in his first race since sustaining a nondisplaced fracture of his right front sesamoid last July.

Bradley had changed his mind by the time Brass Hat and jockey Willie Martinez reached the winner's circle.

"As scary as it is to say it, he might be even better than the old Brass Hat," Bradley said of the 2006 Donn Handicap (G1) winner. "What a race. He could have given up at the eighth pole and just been content to finish second, and I would have been happy with that. What a horse."

The race was no ordinary allowance/optional claimer, either. It also included fellow Grade 1 winner Perfect Drift, and Grade 3 winners M B Sea and Real Dandy.

Brass Hat broke cleanly and was content to rate in fourth, just behind Perfect Drift, as Copy My Notes and Student Council took the field through an opening quarter in :24.42.

Student Council forged into the lead with three furlongs left to run as Brass Hat and Martinez overtook Perfect Drift and inched up on the leaders on the turn. Martinez swung Brass Hat wide entering the stretch, and the bay gelding surged in front by a head and dug in for a protracted battle with Student Council in the stretch.

Student Council headed Brass Hat nearing the eighth pole, but the overwhelming crowd favorite dug in and powered to the line to win by a head, covering the distance in a track-record 1:41.27 on a track rated fast. The previous record of 1:41 3/5 was set by Yes Sir on November 25, 1970, before races were timed in hundredths of a second.

"I thought he was beat when he passed that first finish line," said owner Fred Bradley, a former Kentucky state senator who bred the horse on his farm near Frankfort. "Then I looked up and they were still fighting."

"Half of Frankfort is here today. This is really great."

Martinez said the atmosphere surrounding the race rivaled Brass Hat's track-record setting victory at Gulfstream Park in the 2006 Donn and his runner-up finish in last year's Emirates Airline Dubai World Cup (UAE-G1). After the Dubai World Cup, Brass Hat was disqualified to 11th following a medication positive.

"It was exciting ... emotional ... just great," Martinez said of the record-setting return. "I told Buff a while back that he was better than ever, but you never really know until you get them out there in competition."

"We didn't expect a track record. We expected to do well, maybe win, but this is even better than we hoped for. To do what he did in his first race back in a year ... he's a special horse."

Copy My Notes finished third, 6 1/4 lengths behind Student Council, followed by Real Dandy, Perfect Drift, and M B Sea. Brass Hat won for the seventh time in 16 career starts and has earned $1,271,617.

The victory completed the second successful comeback from injury for Brass Hat, who won the Donn in his second start back after fracturing the cannon bone in his right front leg during the 2004 Walmac Lone Star Derby (G3) during his three-year-old season.

Buff Bradley said the reception from the fans made his heart swell and heightened his pre-race butterflies.

"I love for people to love this horse because it keeps people interested in the game," Bradley said. "As long as he stays sound, he's going to keep on running."

As far as his future plans for Brass Hat, Bradley said the only concrete plan he had in mind was for Sunday night.

"My father and I are going to have a few Coronas tonight and talk it over," he said with a smile.

For an Equibase chart, click here.