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E. R. Bradley

E. R. Bradley
E. R. Bradley
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A combination of legend and fact are woven into the traditional tales of Col. Edward Riley Bradley, but there is no doubt that he was an American success story on a grand scale.


Bradley was born on Dec. 12, 1859, in the mill town of Johnstown, Pa., and after a stint of working in the steel mills he wandered afar. He became — perhaps — a cowboy, a scout in wars against Native Americans, a gold prospector, and an acquaintance of Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid.


More substantiated was Bradley’s venture into the world of gambling, as he ran gambling halls from the Southwest to Memphis to Chicago. Eventually, he became most strongly associated with his elegant club in Palm Beach, Fla.


Bradley was still of middle age when a physician advised that some outdoor activity juxtaposed to the smoky rooms of gambling halls would likely lengthen his life, and he found in horse racing an outlet that provided fresh air but also plenty of action. He owned a few horses and then in 1906 bought a Kentucky farm — which his wife named Idle Hour Stock Farm — and he was on his way.


Although the Kentucky Derby at the time enjoyed nothing like the national fame and acclaim that was awaiting it, Bradley set his sights on winning the event. By the time he broke through with his first winner, Behave Yourself, the Derby had soared to national prominence. Bradley won it again in 1925 with Bubbling Over and with Burgoo King in 1932.


His most famous Derby victory came in 1933 with the maiden Brokers Tip, which prevailed against Head Play in a race revered as the “Fighting Finish” because of the jockeys physically battling each other in the final furlong. Bradley stood alone as the owner of as many as four Derby winners until Calumet Farm won its fifth in 1952. Ironically, the two best horses Bradley ever bred, Hall of Famers Blue Larkspur and Bimelech, were both beaten in the Derby.


Col. Bradley — the title was granted by the governor of Kentucky as a Kentucky Colonel — had entered the sport at a time when James R. Keene was enjoying enormous success by importing European mares to cross with American sire lines, particularly the line of Domino. Bradley set out to imitate that pattern frequently (although he had success, too, with the reverse pattern of imported stallions on American mares). He explained to farm manger Olin Gentry that he could not afford the best broodmare prospects from Europe. The idea was to buy into strong female families, but not to expect to get the best runners from those families. This strategy brought into the Idle Hour broodmare band the remarkable French mare La Troienne. This gold mine has not been tapped out as of 2014, and more than 800 stakes winners descend from La Troienne in the tail-female lineage of pedigrees.


By the time of Bradley’s death in 1946, he had bred 128 stakes winners, including 15 champions. Early on he hit on the idea of naming horses with words beginning with “B,” so the litany of his champions ends toward alliteration — Blue Larkspur, Baba Kenny, Balladier, Black Helen, Bimelech, Busher, Bridal Flower, But Why Not, etc.


Blue Larkspur soared after his Derby defeat, winning the Withers, Belmont Stakes and Arlington Classic in 1929. He became a major figure in pedigrees. Bimelech, La Troienne’s best racing son, was the unbeaten champion 2-year-old of 1939, and after his shocking loss to Gallahadion in the Derby the following year he bounced back to win the Preakness and Belmont. He, too, became a successful stallion.


One of the remarkable fillies Bradley bred was Busher, a daughter of War Admiral and foaled from a daughter of La Troienne. Busher was the champion 2-year-old filly of 1944 but when racing was interrupted briefly the following year as a wartime measure, Bradley sold her for $50,000 to movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. The racing shutdown was brief, and for Mayer, Busher ran through a remarkable campaign that made her one of only three fillies to be named Horse of the Year at age 3. (The others are Twilight Tear in 1944 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009).


Col. Bradley’s impact on racing went well beyond establishing a broodmare band which was to generate many years of success for himself and other breeders.  In 1926, he purchased Fair Grounds in New Orleans and spent lavishly to renovate the historic race track before reselling it eight years later. In the interim he also became an investor in Hialeah in Florida, which would become the winter center of the sport both in terms of fashion and quality racing.


Despite his self-professed identity as a gambler, Bradley was a devout Catholic and was beloved for his generosity to charitable causes, both within racing and in other aspects of society. Among them was staging an annual race meeting at Idle Hour to benefit orphans.




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