Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Never underestimate a champion. This age-old lesson was reiterated to handicappers and racing fans alike when the sensational, speedy mare Groupie Doll defied age and expectations in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.
Groupie Doll wasn’t your typical “elite” racehorse. She wasn’t a blueblood with a fashionable pedigree, nor did she sell for millions of dollars as a yearling. Instead, she was a homebred racing for Fred Bradley and his son William “Buff” Bradley; later on, Carl Hurst and Brent Burns joined the ownership group.
Yes, from a pedigree perspective, Groupie Doll was hardly cut out to be a star. Her sire, Bowman’s Band, won just a single graded stakes race during his long career, while her dam – the Silver Deputy mare Deputy Doll – won a couple of minor races at Mountaineer after being purchased by Fred Bradley for just $25,000 as a yearling.
But what’s that other old racing saying? “A good horse can come from anywhere,” is a common refrain. Despite her humble lineage, the chestnut filly Deputy Doll foaled on April 14, 2008, would grow up to make a mockery of her regally-bred rivals.
Running short, running long, sprinting on dirt and synthetic tracks, stretching out on grass – Groupie Doll tried it all during the early days of her racing career. Under the patient care of trainer Buff Bradley, Groupie Doll went unraced as a 2-year-old and finished eighth in her debut on the Churchill Downs turf course the next year, but when Bradley switched her to dirt, she rattled off three straight victories culminating with the one-mile, Grade 3 Gardenia Stakes at Ellis Park.
But just as quickly as Groupie Doll won three straight races, she managed to lose three straight. For a time, she developed the habit of running well without winning at a variety of distances. She was second in the Charles Town Oaks. Second in the Grade 2 Raven Run Stakes. Third in the Grade 3 Sabin Stakes. Third again in the Grade 2 Inside Information Stakes.
By this point, Groupie Doll was 4 years old, and it was clear she had the talent of a serious racehorse. She just didn’t seem to be delivering on her true potential. Oftentimes she would be lackadaisical in the early stages of her races, falling far off the pace before rallying down the homestretch too late to challenge for victory.
Then Buff Bradley made the fateful decision to equip Groupie Doll with blinkers for the Grade 1 Vinery Madison Stakes at Keeneland.
“In a few of her races, I don’t think she was as forwardly placed early in the race as we’d like,” Bradley commented in a story by Evan Hammonds in the April 21, 2012, edition of BloodHorse magazine. “We thought if we could get her a little closer, then she’d be right there when it was time to kick in.”
The plan worked to perfection. Focused by the blinkers, Groupie Doll suddenly shrugged off her old habits and matured into a professional racehorse – a beast of a racehorse at that. Her seven rivals in the Madison never knew what hit them as Groupie Doll stayed close to the pace, swept into contention around the far turn, and powered clear down the homestretch to win by three lengths.
Bradley had unleashed a monster and the best was still to come. As spring transitioned to summer, and summer to fall, Groupie Doll rattled off victories in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff, the Grade 2 Presque Isle Downs Masters Stakes, and the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes. She was never remotely challenged, and in the Humana Distaff, she actually vied for the early lead before obliterating reigning champion female sprinter Musical Romance by 7 ¼ lengths.
This remarkable streak of success stamped Groupie Doll as an overwhelming favorite for the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita, and she lived up to expectations with her best performance yet. Facing a deep field of talented sprinters, Groupie Doll casually tracked the pace while racing wide, came roaring into contention around the turn, and galloped home in trademark style to score by 4 ½ lengths.
Groupie Doll’s breathtaking performance was considered a surprise highlight of that year's Breeders’ Cup World Championships, but for Fred Bradley, the result was anything but unexpected. “I don’t know what they’re surprised about,” he remarked in The Los Angeles Times of Nov. 4, 2012. “We thought she was going to win all the way.”
Groupie Doll’s sensational season made her a shoo-in for the Eclipse Award as the champion female sprinter of 2012. She might have even had a shot at Horse of the Year honors had she defeated males in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, her ambitious seasonal finale, but the one-mile distance proved a bit too far and she came up a nose short against the accomplished Stay Thirsty.
Kept in training as a 5-year-old in 2013, Groupie Doll was widely expected to embark on another championship campaign. But following a brief winter illness at Gulfstream Park, Groupie Doll seemed less than enthusiastic when resuming training, and Bradley elected to give the mare a few months off at his family’s Indian Ridge Farm in Kentucky.
At Indian Ridge Farm, Groupie Doll spent the winter and spring just acting like an ordinary horse. She was allowed to frolic as she pleased in a paddock with Brass Hat, the Bradleys’ tough-as-nails gelding who had retired in 2010 after winning 10 races and more than $2 million during a decorated career. Slowly but surely, Groupie Doll’s enthusiasm returned.
“Turned out with Brass Hat the last couple weeks, we thought she was getting a little more aggressive towards him, just running around more like she really wanted to get out and do something,” Bradley remarked in a story by Claire Crosby on Bloodhorse.com. Indeed, when Groupie Doll returned to training at Churchill Downs that summer, she promptly fired off two fast workouts to signal her readiness for racing.
“I know we’ve done a lot of groundwork and prepping her to get her to her breezes, and I know she’s fit thanks in part to Brass Hat,” Bradley added. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he helped; they did a lot of running in the field.”
Even still, racing fans and handicappers were skeptical whether Groupie Doll could defend her Breeders’ Cup and championship titles. When she returned to action in the Gardenia Stakes going a mile, she stumbled at the start and couldn’t find the stamina to reach the leaders in the final eighth of a mile, settling for third place behind a pair of major longshots.
Groupie Doll fared better when scoring a repeat victory in the Presque Isle Downs Masters, but she was back to her old habit of charging from far behind, and her margin of victory – just 1 ½ lengths – wasn’t as dominant as in 2012. More doubters emerged when Groupie Doll faded to third place in the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes, beaten fairly and squarely by rising star Judy the Beauty.
But as the saying goes, never underestimate a champion. The Bradleys never lost confidence in their star mare, and when Groupie Doll returned to Santa Anita for the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, it was as though someone had flipped a switch. Whether it was the seven-furlong distance, the dirt racing surface, Bradley’s patient training, or a combination of all three, Groupie Doll reached back to her glory days and delivered a championship-caliber performance.
With regular rider Rajiv Maragh in the saddle, Groupie Doll stayed within range of a fast pace. She moved up to challenge on the turn. She forged to the front in the homestretch, opening up a two-length lead.
And then, as Judy the Beauty closed in strongly with another upset on her mind, Groupie Doll dug deep. She refused to yield. Tenaciously finding a little something extra, Groupie Doll matched strides with Judy the Beauty down the lane and held on to win by half a length.
"She's the best," Buff Bradley said in a post-race recap by Tom LaMarra published on Bloodhorse.com. "I'm so glad she got to show that today. No one on my team ever lost confidence in her. We've always known how good she is.”
Following the Breeders’ Cup, Groupie Doll was sold for $3.1 million to Mandy Pope’s Whisper Hill Farm. With Bradley staying on as trainer, Groupie Doll ran twice more before retirement, ending her career with a powerful seven-length triumph in the Grade 3 Hurricane Bertie Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Not surprisingly, Groupie Doll was once again honored as champion female sprinter, becoming the first (and so far only) horse to win the award multiple times. As they say, never underestimate a champion. Just when you think they’re down and out, they’re apt to fight back and remind you who’s boss.
Note: This story was originally published in 2019 and has been updated.
- Groupie Doll retired with a record of 12 wins, four seconds, and four thirds from 23 starts, with earnings of $2,648,850.
- In 2015, Ellis Park renamed the Gardenia Stakes in Groupie Doll’s honor. The race is now known as the Groupie Doll Stakes.
- Groupie Doll’s first foal, Tapability, was born in 2015. The gelded son of Tapit won a maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park by nine lengths on Sep. 14, 2019.
- Reiterating the quality of Groupie Doll’s victory in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, runner-up Judy the Beauty came back to win the race in 2014 and claim championship honors of her own.