Throughout the last six months, trainer “Buff” Bradley and owner Carl Hurst have spent thousands of dollars rehabbing their “pride and joy” The Player after he suffered a near-fatal injury in late March. The colt finally returned to Bradley's farm on Friday and, in a true fairytale ending, Bradley and Hurst were rewarded Saturday when their 51-1 longshot Divine Queen scored a shocking victory under Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel in the $100,000 Dogwood (Listed) at Churchill Downs.
“This win is for The Player,” said Bradley, who was fighting back tears in the winner's circle. “It's been a long week and this is truly unbelievable.”
Divine Queen, a homebred by Divine Park out of Bradley and Hurst's stakes-winning mare Town Queen, was the longest-priced horse in the race.
“It's like another Hollywood movie,” said Borel, who won the 2009 Kentucky Derby in similar fashion aboard Mine That Bird. “Buff and Carl had a lot going on this week with The Player and I'm so happy for that horse and (Divine Queen). It's just too cool.”
The Player was a fan-favorite on the backstretch of Churchill Downs. Fans would frequently visit the flashy-chestnut colt as he laid in his stall and stuck his head beneath the webbing in search of peppermints.
Then, on March 24, tragedy struck when The Player suffered a near-catastrophic injury in the New Orleans Handicap (Grade II) at Fair Grounds.
“We were looking at a big year for this horse when that day came,” Bradley said. “He nearly broke the track record in the Mineshaft (GIII) and was coming into great form. When the incident occurred in the New Orleans Handicap, I could tell it was bad when I was running up the track to him. I think Calvin had a lot to do with saving his life. He got him pulled up as quickly as he could.
“When I got to him I knew it wasn't good. I'm thinking this is the last day of my training career because I didn't think I could do this anymore without The Player in the barn. I loaded him on the van and wouldn't let anyone else touch him. I was with him when he was born and I was going to be with him all the way. I got him on the van and on our way back to the barn I said to him, 'I'm going to do everything I can to save you but, buddy, you have to help, too.'”
The Player suffered two sesamoid fractures in his right front leg and had surgery at Louisiana State University to fuse the bones back together.
“I got on the phone with the vet and he explained he could do the surgery but the biggest risk would be any complications after the surgery with infection,” Bradley said. “Carl and I sat in my office and talked about the options and we both agreed we needed to do everything we could to save the horse. And, we did.”
The Player spent nearly six months at the LSU clinic recovering and rehabbing until he was stable enough to make the van ride back to Bradley's Indian Ridge Farm in Frankfort, Ky.
Bradley traveled Thursday to pick up The Player and made a nearly 24-hour trip back to his family's farm.
“The thing that a lot of people love about this horse is his personality,” Bradley said. “That's what helped him throughout this recovery. He's such a smart horse and he wouldn't push himself to allow his leg to heal. Does his leg look the same? No. However, I know it is not in any pain. He's back grazing at the farm and in the stall right across from (Grade I winner) Brass Hat. Now, I'll have to see if a farm out there is interested to have him meet a couple of girlfriends.”
Fans can track The Player's progress through his Facebook page: https://bit.ly/2I9YvuP. Bradley hopes to have an open house at his farm in the upcoming months.
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