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The last time Buff Bradley celebrated in the winner’s circle after a New Orleans Handicap, it was with his first truly big horse. It’s been a dozen years since Brass Hat rolled down the stretch to win the Grade 2 affair by 2 1/2-lengths, and Bradley has won many important events since, but winning big races never gets old. On Saturday, as part of the Louisiana Derby card at Fair Grounds, Bradley looks for his newest stable star, The Player, to bring home the top prize in a race that was one of the native Kentucky trainer’s first important victories.

Bradley, who will train the stable of three in the first partnership offering right here at Derby Day Racing, has continued to push all the right buttons in the career of the five-year-old son of Street Boss, including adding  blinkers for his last start. It was a move that clearly helped, as The Player rolled home an authoritative victor in the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap, at Fair Grounds.

Owned in partnership with his friend, Carl Hurst, the Mineshaft romp was the 5th victory in 13 career starts for The Player  and Bradley. It was also his first graded stakes since a sharp score in the Grade 2 Fayette Stakes at Keeneland in October. Fearing that his charge might have lost a bit of focus in a couple of starts after the Fayette, Bradley added the hood, and the change of equipment worked out perfectly.

Known as Angus around the barn, The Player has always been a favorite of Bradley, and his family. “He’s a character. He loves the kids, the whole family – he grew up with them,” added Bradley.  And when the family favorite developed a chip in his knee as a juvenile, the veteran trainer was more than happy to give The Player plenty of time to recuperate, grow, and mature before bringing him back to the races as a three-year-old. He finished a good second to Cupid in the Indiana Derby of 2016, and has continued to improve ever since. 

Saturday’s test at Fair Grounds, which Bradley has made his home base this winter, should provide a serious test for The Player. Chief among his competition will be the multiple graded stakes winner Good Samaritan. You’ll remember him as the colt who romped right by a pair of classic winners in last summer’s Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga. Most recently, the Bill Mott-trained four-year-old finished a fast closing second in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.

“We have probably the most speed and you know (Hall of Fame jockey) Calvin (Borel) will be on the rail so at least he gets to start out there,” said Bradley . “I think Good Samaritan is definitely going to be the horse for us to beat, but I think he’s going to have to catch us.”

If all goes as planned for The Player in the New Orleans, it will be back to Kentucky for some important races in the spring. The Grade 2  Alysheba Stakes falls on Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs, and Bradley has indicated that as a likely next stop. It’s a weekend which the trainer has found much success at his home base in recent years, winning a trio of big races with the likes of Groupie Doll and Divisidero.

Looking even farther down the road, the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap, also at Churchill Downs, is planned as the next opportunity for the maturing horse to earn his first Grade 1 victory. And beyond that, having Churchill Downs as a home base could become ultimately beneficial for Bradley and The Player this fall, as the site of the 2018 Breeders’ Cup. Whether or not The Player can add a third Breeders’ Cup victory to the growing resume of his trainer is still down the road, but all indications are the pair are poised for a very big year.

Tragically, The Player suffered a life threatening injury during the running of the New Orleans Handicap. He is scheduled for surgery on Monday in an attempt to repair his ankle. My prayers are with him and his connections.

Photo of The Player courtesy of Hodges Photography