Six years ago, trainer William "Buff" Bradley and his father, Fred, watched their chestnut filly step into the starting gate at the venue affectionately known as the "Pea Patch" and waited to see if the step forward she had teased of would materialize.
The homebred daughter of Bowman's Band had signaled her ability during a maiden win at Churchill Downs 2 ½ weeks earlier. But after hitting the wire 8 ½ lengths in front during a seven-furlong allowance test at Ellis Park on July 4, 2011, there were heightened hopes the mantle left behind by the Bradleys' freshly retired Grade 1 winner Brass Hat was about to be snatched up, wrested into the grasp of a pretty, red girl named Groupie Doll.
"I remember ‘Brass’ left right before she made her first start, and I told him to hand the baton off to one of these horses and let them take over, and I felt like he did," Buff Bradley recalled. "You could tell [Groupie Doll] was going to be a nice horse. Did I think she would be a graded stakes horse? There was no way I knew at the time. She broke her maiden pretty impressively and then did the non-winners of two at Ellis and ... it was pretty much just a hand ride that day. She looked very impressive. It was just, you don't know what else she was up against."
Had the Bradley clan known what they would be in for over the next few seasons, their Fourth of July celebration of 2011 would have likely made any fireworks near Henderson, Ky., look like a tepid light show. And a half dozen years after Groupie Doll graced Ellis Park for the first time, the impact of the multiple Eclipse Award-winning sprinter still resonates at the summertime home of racing in the Bluegrass State.
While just three of Groupie Doll's 23 career starts came at Ellis Park, the importance of each of those outings in her development into a two-time Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint winner and divisional champion is immortalized in the fact that Ron Geary's operation – which opened its 2017 meet July 1 – renamed its lone graded stakes in her honor in 2015. In addition to that one-filly show she put on during her first outing there in July 2011, she earned her first graded win that August when she took the one-mile Gardenia Stakes – the Grade 3 test that now bears her name – and then returned to run third in that same spot in 2013 off a near eight-month layoff.
Though Groupie Doll wouldn't notch her first championship campaign until 2012, Buff Bradley points to her Gardenia triumph the year prior as one that "told me everything" about what kind of talent he and his father had to hone. She was the only 3-year-old in that field that day but she won for fun, officially hitting the wire three lengths in front.
And when Bradley needed to get her back going in 2013, he went back to the track that provided Groupie Doll with her first real litmus test and emerged knowing he wasn't wrong in thinking she'd be dead right for what was ultimately a successful Breeders' Cup title defense.
"When she won the Gardenia, she was the only 3-year-old in the race and she won it like she was supposed to. And that was going a mile, so I was like, 'What kind of filly do we have here?'" said Bradley, who later sold Groupie Doll to Mandy Pope's Whisper Hill Farm for $3.1 million at the 2013 Keeneland November sale. "Right then too, I didn't know exactly what her distance was. She had run well going short and we were sort of thinking between seven-eighths and a mile, and that's where it ended up being. She didn't like any part of two turns, but that seven-eighths to a mile, she ran well most every time.
"After her time off the year after [her first Breeders' Cup win] is when we took her back and she ran third in the Gardenia and ran super that day. Even though she ran third, that was a big race for her and we all knew it. It was disappointing not to win but, at the same time, we felt like she was back and that's something we thought was really good, to put that mile in her and get her going again."
Based in Frankfort, Ky., Bradley's family has been emotionally entrenched with Ellis since it was the former Dade Park. The late Fred Bradley made enough trips to the Indiana border that he considered the track a second home. Hence, it was especially poignant that one of his own helped put the venue's reputation back on the map after some dark days.
From 2008 to 2010, Ellis was mostly in the local headlines over talks of it possibly closing and having a reduced racing schedule. While the addition of historical racing games offered financial stability and bolstered purses, Groupie Doll's maturation into a four-time Grade 1 winner and two-time champion drove home the point that a good horse could indeed be developed around that soybean-filled infield.
It's a trend that has held in recent years, particularly with regards to 2-year-olds. Not This Time, runner-up in the 2016 Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile and an Eclipse Award finalist, broke his maiden at Ellis Park, as did Lookin At Lee, second-place finisher in this year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
"I renamed it Saratoga South because of all the nice horses to come out of it the last couple of years," jockey Robby Albarado said in advance of the current Ellis meet.
Taken at face value, the outing a certain chestnut filly threw down at Ellis six years ago was a sign of something larger brewing. Her connections could have never guessed, however, they would look back at that holiday weekend as a game-changer of a day for themselves and their host track.
"We've seen several nice, nice horses that have come out of Ellis now, and she's one of the best, I think," Bradley said. "Taking her down there and her winning her very first stakes at Ellis Park ... it was special for my father to win there because he always felt that Ellis Park was home. He loved going there as much as he loved going anywhere and to be able to do that, and for them to rename it the Groupie Doll, was pretty meaningful for us."