10/28/2017 6:18PM

Borel pilots The Player to meaningful victory in Fayette Stakes

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Coady Photography/Keeneland
Calvin Borel hugs trainer Buff Bradley following The Player's victory in Saturday's Grade 2 Fayette Stakes.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Calvin Borel patted his colt’s chestnut neck, briefly looked skyward, then leapt off The Player's back and caught emotional trainer Buff Bradley up in a fierce hug.

The Grade 2, $200,000 Fayette Stakes at Keeneland marked the first stakes victory for The Player, always a well-regarded colt who was co-bred by Bradley, his late father Fred Bradley, and partner Carl Hurst, a friend of the family for nearly five decades. Borel is also a close friend of the family – and much has happened for both the jockey and the trainer in the two years since The Player made his career debut in September 2015.

Borel retired from riding in March 2016 for personal reasons, moved in at the Bradleys' Indian Ridge Farm, and came out of retirement that August. Borel became a father. Bradley lost his.

And The Player continued knocking at the door. The colt romped in the third start of his career to break his maiden on May 14, 2016 – days before Fred Bradley died at 85 – and was second to Cupid in the Grade 2 Indiana Derby two starts later in what turned out to be his 3-year-old finale. This year, The Player was minor stakes-placed, but had just one win in four starts coming into the Fayette. Borel got on him for the first time last time out, when he led into the stretch of the Grade 3 Ack Ack, but yielded late to Awesome Slew, raising more questions for Bradley about the colt's future.

"We've been, for quite awhile, just trying to figure out his right spot," said Bradley, who added that trying turf had also crossed his mind. "His right distance, and where he really fits in."

"It's good," he added, pausing between words. It's good ... just to see him doing it. I'm ... thinking about my dad, that's all."

The Player was the latest homebred stakes winner that Bradley and Borel teamed up on. The Hall of Famer and three-time Kentucky Derby winner piloted the veteran Brass Hat to several graded stakes victories. He also rode champion Groupie Doll to an allowance win and a graded placing early in her career.

"Our first big race together was back in 1991 with Free Spirit's Joy," Bradley said, recalling the 1991 Super Derby winner trained by Clarence Picou, for whom he worked as an assistant. "Our relationship goes back that far. He rode Groupie for me, he rode Brass Hat for me. For him to be able to ride another homebred for us, it's special, and I love seeing Calvin do it. He's a great rider, and he needs the horse to be put underneath him to show how great he is."

With The Player ($19.60) underneath him, Borel elected to sit back in a stalking second early, two lengths behind as Neolithic took the field through a sharp opening half of 47.47 seconds on a track that was sealed and rated sloppy all day after rain fell in the Lexington area the prior night. Brisk temperatures limited the closing-day attendance to 14,310.

The Player began to reel in Neolithic – who was third to Arrogate in both the Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup, and third to Gun Runner in the Woodward Stakes last out – approaching the far turn, and took dead aim on his outside as the field made the final bend into the stretch. Neolithic fought back, but The Player took his measure, and kicked away in the final furlong to win by three lengths, stopping the clock in 1:48.16 for 1 1/8 miles.

After the top two, it was 10 lengths back to McCraken, who rallied from last to be third in his first start since the Travers Stakes in late August. Giuseppe the Great, Malibu Pro, and favored Honorable Duty rounded out the order of finish.

“He left there running," Borel, whose fiancée Renay Falkner gave birth to Chase Clovis Borel on Sept. 27, said of his trip. "I was right where I wanted to be at all times. I kinda smooched at him around the turn. If I could just get my horse to go on and finish, I knew he could run. The mile and an eighth kinda scared me, but he showed us today he can do it.”

Now that The Player has shown he can do it, Bradley says the colt will target the Grade 1 Clark Handicap on Nov. 24 at his Churchill Downs base. Borel will have the call. He certainly won't be mowing the lawn at Indian Ridge again anytime soon.

“I don't think our Zero-Turn was going fast enough for him,” Bradley kidded of the jockey known for riding the rail. “And he was only getting the inside of the paddocks mowed, too.”