08/08/2013 2:48PM

Ellis Park: Groupie Doll starts her season in Gardenia Stakes


Buff Bradley said he wasn’t feeling any pressure about the Gardenia Stakes on Saturday at Ellis Park until he started finding out how many friends and supporters will be there to watch Groupie Doll in her long-awaited return to action.

“There’s going to be all kinds of people there,” said Bradley, who trains and co-owns Groupie Doll, the 2012 female sprint champion. “This mare has a whole lot of fans, people I didn’t even know about. It’s pretty humbling. I just hope she can go out there and make them glad they came to see her.”

Groupie Doll will be making her 5-year-old debut in the Grade 3, $100,000 Gardenia, the annual signature race at Ellis. She has been listed as an 8-5 favorite on the morning line, although it’s 1-9 she will be considerably lower than that when the race is run at 4:10 p.m. Central.

Eleven other fillies and mares are entered against her, although at least one, Dixie Strike, definitely will scratch, and perhaps another one or two will follow, according to the Ellis racing office.

Groupie Doll has won 9 of 17 career starts and more than $1.65 million for Bradley and his father, Fred, along with their partners, Carl Hurst and Brent Burns. Clearly the overriding variable in the one-mile Gardenia is how race-ready she is following an 8 1/2-month layoff. Bradley said the Gardenia will serve as a lead-in to the same three races she won easily last year when earning her Eclipse Award as a divisional champion – the Sept. 9 Presque Isle Masters at Presque Isle Downs, the Oct. 6 Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes at Keeneland, and the Nov. 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita.

Groupie Doll has had six workouts since she returned to training at her Churchill Downs base in early May, with the first coming in late June.

“I’m not really concerned about the mile and us eventually turning back into shorter races,” Bradley said. “Hopefully, this will be run at a slower pace than the sprints she’s used to. She’s already shown many times how versatile she is, so we’re just hoping she’ll give a good account of herself and we can build on this for what’s ahead.”

Rajiv Maragh will be in from New York to ride Groupie Doll for the eighth straight time. The chestnut mare will break from post 2 in a race that starts out of a chute in the clubhouse turn.

Bradley said the popularity of Groupie Doll might be best illustrated by an email he received this week from a Lexington-area physician who wrote that he has been a racing fan for more than 30 years but has never been to Ellis Park.

“He said, ‘I’m going to the Pea Patch,’ ” said Bradley, repeating the track’s well-worn nickname. “It’s pretty neat when people reach out like that.”

Bradley said he and his family will arrive “a little later in the day” with his 82-year-old father from their hometown of Frankfort, about a three-hour drive from Ellis.

“It’s going to be a long day for him anyway with the drive back and forth, so I don’t want to make it any tougher on him,” he said.

The Gardenia, the only graded race held each year at Ellis, has been run continuously since 1982, when Sweetest Chant won for trainer Joe Bollero and jockey Earlie Fires. The 2012 winner was Salty Strike, while Groupie Doll won the 2011 edition as a 3-year-old for her first stakes triumph.

The extended forecast for Saturday in the Henderson, Ky., area calls for a 40 percent chance of showers and a high temperature of 80.

Ellis provides free admission to its grandstand and Instant Racing parlor, with seating upgrades and clubhouse admission available at additional cost. First post for the nine-race card is 12:50 p.m. Central.