'Cinderella' suffers setback
Brass Hat sidelined with leg injury
By Jennie Rees
Three months ago, the Bradley family of Frankfort, Ky., was living out the dream of thousands of horse owners: With limited resources, they came up with a runner who could compete in racing's big-time.
Call it finding the Big Horse. Or Cinderella. Both describe Brass Hat, the cheaply bred 5-year-old gelding who went from losing a cheap maiden-claiming race to winning graded stakes, who came back from a devastating leg fracture to win a Grade I event that stamped him among America's finest older horses and who nearly beat royalty in the $6 million Dubai World Cup, the planet's richest race.
Then the clock struck midnight for owner-breeder Fred Bradley, his son and trainer Buff and all the supporting cast surrounding a race horse.
Nine days after they officially were on the short end of the most expensive disqualification in history -- losing Brass Hat's $1.2 million in second-place money in Dubai for a seemingly innocuous medication infraction -- they had to deal with a career-threatening injury to their stable star on Thursday.
"I had come to peace on the Dubai deal because I knew in my heart we felt like we got robbed," said the colt's jockey, Willie Martinez. "It was devastating, but I had made peace. This one here is going to be harder. Because when you see the animal, it's not about money anymore. You're thinking about him."
By yesterday, Buff Bradley and his barn crew were looking at the bright side: that the cracked sesamoid that Brass Hat sustained is not considered life-threatening and will not require surgery, unlike the condylar fracture that the gelding suffered in October, 2004, and that kept him sidelined for 13 months.
It's possible that Brass Hat will race again -- after all, no one thought he would return after the earlier fracture -- but Bradley isn't counting on it. The horse doesn't owe them anything, he said, and if Brass Hat spends the rest of his life eating grass on Fred Bradley's Indian Ridge Farm where the horse was born, that's OK, too.
"He'll have to be 100 percent before anything ever happens" as far as putting him back in training, Buff Bradley said. "If the vet says two months, we'll say four. I don't want to give anybody false hope. We have to make decisions as he heals."
Today the Bradleys and Martinezes are facing the harsh reality of racing's real world, that only occasionally does the little fish get away from the big fish. They know in all likelihood they will never have another horse like Brass Hat, who pulled Bradley into the limelight and helped rejuvenate Martinez's riding career.
"We're not blessed with these kinds of horses every day, so you get one like that you've got so much appreciation for him," Buff Bradley said. "With all the bad stuff that has gone along with it, you've got to appreciate the other stuff, too."
Fred Bradley, a former Kentucky state senator and judge who has owned horses for decades and never paid more than $40,000 for one, bought Brass Hat's dam, Brassy, for $5,000 and spent $3,500 to breed her to Prized. The gelding lost his debut in a $15,000 maiden-claiming race, but in his third start broke his maiden at 38-1 in Turfway's Rushaway Stakes.
After reeling off victories in the 2004 Ohio and Indiana derbys, he suffered a potentially career-ending fracture in the Lone Star Derby in Texas. Recouping at Indian Ridge, he bounced back early this year to capture the Grade II New Orleans and Grade I Donn handicaps, earning an invitation to the Dubai World Cup in the Persian Gulf. There he finished a gritty second after getting chased down in the final strides by Electrocutionist, owned by Dubai's ruling family.
But Brass Hat was stripped of his placing after a trace level of the corticosteroid methylprednisolone was detected in his post-race testing. The Bradleys said that the medication -- part of a common therapeutic procedure -- was administered 28 days before the race and that they relied on a document provided by a World Cup representative that listed the withdrawal guideline as 23 days. Their appeal of the disqualification was denied June 27.
It wasn't just the loss of the money; the Bradleys badly wanted that second place to be a permanent part of Brass Hat's record. They noted, too, the American races they missed out on by going to Dubai.
In his only other start, Brass Hat finished in a dead heat for fifth in Churchill's Grade I Stephen Foster three weeks ago, for which Buff Bradley felt he hadn't gotten the gelding fit enough. Brass Hat had worked extremely well for Saratoga's prestigious Whitney Handicap when Martinez felt the horse take a bad step while pulling up.
"It's heart-breaking, but that's this business," Buff Bradley said. "Luckily it's not as bad as it could be. It will take a while, but it will heel. … We all understand what a great ride it's been."
Even without the Dubai money, Brass Hat remains a millionaire with $1,233,473 in earnings, with six wins and four official seconds in 15 starts.
"If any horse can make a comeback, it will be that horse," Martinez said while feeding Brass Hat peppermints. "He's a miracle horse.
"Horses like him are the reason you keep coming back. We'll be wearing a sign: 'Searching for the Big Horse again.' He's always going to be in my heart, for the joy he's brought to me and my family. … I think his legacy is going to stand: that he's giving everybody here hope that you can get to those kind of races."