03/17/2006 1:00AM

A jack-of-all-trades finds his way to Dubai

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Bill Denver / EQUI-PHOTOS
From hard-core politics to flying jet fighters to foaling Thoroughbred mares - now comes the coup de grace for 74-year-old Fred Bradley.

FLORENCE, Ky. - No, Fred Bradley never traveled with the circus. But he has done pretty much everything else, from immersing himself in hard-core politics to flying jet fighters to foaling Thoroughbred mares to all sorts of seemingly unrelated endeavors.

Now comes the coup de grace for Bradley, a 74-year-old, story-telling, jack-of-all-trading bundle of energy whose low-budget racing stable got its start more than 40 years ago at such tracks as Miles Park and Waterford Park. Bradley is the breeder and owner of Brass Hat, a 5-year-old gelding whose improbable rise to stardom has taken him to the world's richest race, the $6 million Dubai World Cup.

"I can't even tell you what a thrill this is," said Bradley.

For Bradley, whose son, Buff, is the trainer of Brass Hat, a trip to Dubai is the culmination of a colorful life. Bradley earned a journalism degree in 1953 and briefly worked on a tiny daily newspaper in his western Kentucky hometown of Providence before returning to the University of Kentucky to get a law degree in 1959. He started practicing law while also getting into a variety of business ventures, most notably a trucking firm that he still owns, and in 1967, he parlayed that business savvy into 320 acres of farmland in the Kentucky capital of Frankfort. That was the same year he did a tour of Vietnam as an Air Force pilot. He eventually retired as a reservist in April 1991 with the rank of brigadier general.

"Sounds fancier than it really was," he said. "I always say the military is hours and hours of sheer boredom, interrupted by seconds of sheer terror."

At various times in his busy life, Bradley also raced stock cars on dirt tracks, started the first pizza restaurant in Frankfort, helped raise four children, served as the attorney for 10 years for the Kentucky Racing Commission, argued cases before the Public Service Commission, served as a county judge, served 20 years (1980-99) as a Kentucky state senator, and raised, trained, and exercised racehorses at his Indian Ridge Farm.

"Sometimes I'd get on 10 head a day," said Bradley, who got his first trainer's license in 1965. "I finally had to quit getting on them a few years ago."

Unlike the bluebloods just up the road in Lexington and Versailles, the Bradley horses did not cost much, nor did they prove worth much, as they often wound up competing in $1,500 claiming races.

"I'd get in my plane and fly to Waterford [now Mountaineer] or drive down to Louisville to Miles Park to saddle a horse," he said.

"Dad's a trip, a true one-of-a-kind," said Buff Bradley, 42. "He really was doing all those things at once. When I was still living at home into my early 20's, his office was above my room, and I'd hear him up there working at 2 a.m. He hardly ever slept."

Buff was the second child born to Fred and Bettye, who died in 1987; he followed Steve, 47, and came before two sisters, Anne and Margaret. Buff is approachable, even-tempered, and articulate, and with a 1989 bachelor's degree in business management from Kentucky State University, he very well could have aspired to a career with more security than racehorse trainer. But having been around them his entire life, Buff couldn't get horses out of his system, and even though his father wanted Buff - whose given name is William but was nicknamed "Buffalo Bill" by Steve from an early age - to follow more noble pursuits, he went straight from college to the racetrack.

"I finally said, 'If you're going to do this, then you have to learn from Clarence Picou,' " said Fred, who had befriended Picou, and employed him as a trainer, in the 1960's.

Buff worked for four years under Picou, who died in 1998, before going out on his own in 1993. Based year-round in Kentucky, he has had a respectable, if unspectacular, career, having won 207 races, including 11 stakes, in nearly 13 years. Buff Bradley, whose wife, Kim, is the daughter of Midwest-based trainers Gary and Sue Thomas, said recently in an interview at his current base, Turfway Park, that working for Picou "was the best thing I ever did in racing."

The World Cup, to be run next Saturday at Nad Al Sheba, will be the 14th career start for Brass Hat, whose career essentially has come in two phases. His first nine races, all at age 3, included wins in the Ohio and Indiana derbies and ended with a ninth-place finish in the Lone Star Derby on the day before the 2004 Breeders' Cup in Texas.

Brass Hat, a 2001 foal by Prized out of Brassy (a mare that Fred Bradley bought for $3,500, then sold in 2002 for $8,500), suffered a condylar fracture of his right front ankle in the Lone Star Derby and underwent surgery to have two screws inserted the following day. The injury was the type that occasionally ends careers and frequently means a horse will not be as good as before the injury occurred.

But in the remarkable case of Brass Hat, the injury and subsequent 13-month layoff have proven to be no obstacles whatsoever. He has become one of the top older horses in North America after easily capturing the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap and Grade 1 Donn Handicap in his last two starts.

"Fortunately, everything went perfect after he got hurt, and he's just gotten better and better," said Buff Bradley.

Four Bradleys will be in Dubai for what is easily the biggest race in family history: Buff and his 10-year-old daughter, Kory, and Fred and his wife of 2 1/2 years, Kay.

"Money is not the driving force of why we're going," said Fred Bradley, who now lives primarily in Gulf Shores, Ala., but returns periodically to Kentucky for business and personal reasons, including a recent week during which he helped foal mares at Indian Ridge. "We turned down seven figures for the horse before the Donn, and he's made more than $1.2 million.

"This is more about the honor of going. I've been running horses a long time. Going to a place like Dubai for a $6 million race is almost beyond your imagination."

Bradley was hanging pictures in his Gulf Shores home last week when he came across a winner's circle photo from Dade Park, now Ellis Park, in 1938. He was the 7-year-old boy in the photo.

Fast forward to the possibility of Brass Hat winning the Dubai World Cup and his owner rubbing elbows in the winner's circle with billionaire sheikhs. Connecting all those dots is an incredible stretch, but even if it doesn't happen, there always will be a story to tell.