Brass Hat, ridden by Willie Martinez, wins the MassCap on Saturday at Suffolk Downs in East Boston. Fairbanks, ridden by Richard Migliore, follows behind. (PHOTO / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Brass Hat wins MassCap

EAST BOSTON -- Saturday's 65th running of the Massachusetts Handicap was all about the rebirth of Suffolk Downs and its signature race. But as far as the winning connections were concerned, it was just as much about a birth that took place six years ago.

With 19,191 fans looking on -- the largest crowd at Suffolk since Cigar successfully defended his MassCap crown in 1996 -- Brass Hat went by 3-to-5 favorite Fairbanks at the top of the stretch and cruised to a 3/4-length victory, paying $10.20 to win.

The win was worth $300,000 to owner Fred Bradley and his son, "Buff" Bradley, the horse's trainer. And while the money is significant, you can't put a price tag on the tremendous feeling of pride and accomplishment they felt, considering the long and winding road Brass Hat has traveled.

The journey began on May 22, 2001, on the Bradleys' farm in Frankfort, Ky., when Buff Bradley literally pulled the foal from his dam, Brassy, an unraced broodmare the Bradleys had bought at auction for only $5,000 and then spent $3,500 to breed her to the stud Prized.

And so Brass Hat has been much more than just another racehorse for the Bradleys, who look upon him as a family member, which is why they were willing to be patient as he twice needed more than a year to recover from two potentially career-ending injuries.

The first occurred in the Lone Star Derby in 2004 when he suffered a condular fracture in his right hind ankle. "I couldn't even talk after the race," Buff Bradley said. "At that point I just wanted to save him as a pet."
The horse's comeback was highlighted by a victory in the grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream in February of 2006, a victory that propelled him to the $6 million Dubai World Cup. He finished second in that race, only to be disqualified a week later after a post-race test revealed trace amounts of a steroid, costing the Bradleys a cool $1.2 million in purse money.

The second major injury occurred when he took a bad step in a workout a few weeks after running fifth in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs in June 2006. This time it was a fractured sesamoid in the same ankle, leading to another 13-month layoff. In his return at Churchill Downs in July, he set a track record in winning an allowance race. That was followed by two dismal performances at Saratoga, albeit in grade 1 races (Whitney and Woodward) vs. Lawyer Ron, the top handicap horse in the country.

Buff Bradley has been telling anyone who wanted to listen that his only explanation for the Saratoga debacles was that Brass Hat simply did not like the track. The horse had trained very well since, so the Bradleys entered the MassCap with at least reserved optimism.

"The horse is doing great, but he was doing great before the races at Saratoga, too," Fred Bradley said a few hours before the race. "We'll see what happens today."

What happened was that jockey Willie Martinez, cognizant of the fact that Fairbanks had the potential to run away and hide if left unpressured early, got Brass Hat into the race right away from his outside post position. The six-year-old gelding was fourth entering the backstretch and Buff Bradley liked what he saw.

"Going down the backside I was very confident," Buff Bradley said, even though the fractions were a very pedestrian :24 2/5 for the quarter-mile and :49 1/5 for the half.

"I knew there was only one horse to beat at that point," Martinez said.

That was the Todd Pletcher-trained Fairbanks, who was hoping to use the MassCap as a springboard to the Breeders Cup Classic. And while Fairbanks, who was purchased for $1.85 million as a yearling by the Team Valor syndicate, did take the lead entering the far turn, Martinez had Brass Hat a close second and he knew victory was in sight.

"Once he pulls even, it takes a very good horse to beat him," Martinez said.

No horse could beat Brass Hat Saturday and as far as Suffolk Downs management was concerned, nothing could beat the type of day they had: perfect weather, a large and extremely enthusiastic crowd and a great race.

Indeed, Sept. 22, 2007 will go down as the day a venerable racetrack was reborn and the star of the show was a steed whose birth six years and four months ago has meant so much to Fred and Buff Bradley.