08/07/2013 2:04PM

Ellis Park: Groupie Doll must answer question in Gardenia

Tom Keyser
Groupie Doll will run in the Gardenia off a layoff of more than eight months.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Buff Bradley’s main concern with Groupie Doll is a simple one.

“Sometimes horses don’t come back the same way they left the racetrack,” said Bradley. “I just want her back with that same fire.”

Groupie Doll, the filly-mare sprint champion of 2012, will make her long-awaited return to action Saturday in the Grade 3, $100,000 Gardenia Stakes, the annual showcase race at Ellis Park in western Kentucky. Groupie Doll has not raced in more than eight months, and it has taken a lot of time and effort to get her back into racing shape.

“My riders and assistants all say she’s come back bigger and stronger,” said Bradley. “Now she has to go out and show it.”

Groupie Doll enjoyed a sensational 4-year-old season in 2012, winning the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint as an odds-on favorite and earning nearly $1.4 million. She is owned by Bradley and his 82-year-old father, Fred, along with partners Carl Hurst and Brent Burns.

Bradley said he and most of his family, including his dad, will be on hand Saturday at Ellis for the Gardenia, a one-mile race that drew a surprisingly large field for having such a heavy favorite. Twelve fillies and mares are entered, although two or three could scratch, according to Ellis racing officials. Groupie Doll and regular jockey Rajiv Maragh have been assigned post 2.

“I’d much rather have an outside post, although when she won the Gardenia as a 3-year-old she had the 2-hole, too,” Bradley recalled this week while watching her train at his Churchill Downs base. “But that’s us trainers. We’ve got to have something to worry about, don’t we?”

Groupie Doll gave Bradley enough to worry about over the winter. After she was beaten a nose by Stay Thirsty when trying male rivals in the Nov. 24 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, she was turned out for about a month on the Bradleys’ Indian Ridge Farm in Frankfort, Ky., after which she was sent to Gulfstream Park in south Florida for a winter campaign.

But soon after arriving, the mare clearly was not herself, and blood tests ultimately showed she was suffering from a virus, although “she only spiked a fever once,” said Bradley.

“She wasn’t lame,” he said. “She wasn’t off. She just wasn’t right. She didn’t want to do it.”

Bradley then sent Groupie Doll back to Indian Ridge, where she had nearly three months’ rest, and she returned to Churchill shortly after the May 4 Kentucky Derby. Since late June, she has had six breezes, four of them bullets.

Bradley chuckles as he relates how during her down time at the farm Groupie Doll ran in the field with Brass Hat, the retired gelding who earned more than $2.1 million.

“They’d be racing, and ol’ Brass would keep cutting the corner on her,” he said. “It was really funny. She’d come back blowing real hard and he wouldn’t blow out a match.”

Initially, Bradley did not point Groupie Doll to the Gardenia, but he now believes “the timing of the race and the fact that hopefully she won’t have to bring her ‘A’ game should set us up real well” for the same two Breeders’ Cup preps she had last year for the Filly-Mare Sprint, which will be run again at Santa Anita on Nov. 1. Those races are the Presque Isle Masters on Sept. 9 and the Thoroughbred Club of America at Keeneland on Oct. 6.

Practical considerations aside, there are certain sentimental reasons in having the mare return at Ellis.

Fred Bradley, who is experiencing health issues, grew up in the region in Providence, Ky., and the younger Bradley believes a nostalgic trip home will lift his father’s spirits. In addition, the 2011 Gardenia marked a turning point in the career of Groupie Doll, as she drew off in hand to win by three lengths as the only 3-year-old in the field. It was her first of six graded stakes wins.

“That race kind of confirmed for us what we already felt, that she could be something special,” said Bradley.

The Gardenia, the eighth of nine Saturday races, is set for 4:10 p.m. Central.