A little before 5 p.m. last Sunday, Chip Bradley had a firm hold on a leather rein.
As a part owner of Sailor’s Cap, he had the privilege of leading the 4-year-old bay colt into the winner’s circle at Belmont Park.
On this day, Sailor’s Cap beat Kip Deville — a four-time Grade I winner, including the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Mile — in the Grade III Poker Stakes.
The Team Valor group got its picture taken, then headed to the trustees room to raise champagne glasses, watch the Poker replay over and over and plot the next step.
Trainer Jimmy Toner came up with the Fourstardave in seven weeks at Saratoga Race Course, which suited Bradley, a state worker who lives in Delmar, perfectly. He would have 50 people at the Spa to watch Sailor’s Cap, the first horse he ever owned.
By Wednesday afternoon, all Bradley had to hold on to were memories.
The colt spiked a little fever on Tuesday, and around 3:30 Wednesday morning, a night watchman rousted Toner out of bed to come down to the barn at Belmont, just in time to see Sailor’s Cap collapse in his stall at 4:30. A giant killer and stakes winner on Sunday; dead on Wednesday.
The circumstances were so mysterious that Toner ordered a necropsy on Sailor’s Cap, which will be conducted at New Bolton Research Center in Pennsylvania. Team Valor is well-known for putting the horse first and sparing no expense to make sure its horses get the best care and medical treatment.
The explosion of racing partnerships in the last decade or so, accelerated by the Triple Crown run by Funny Cide, has brought badly needed capital into the sport, but also a wave of inexperienced owners who may or may not be emotionally prepared for unexpected catastrophes.
The Sailor’s Cap episode was reminiscent of what happened to Mike and Lyn Shanley of Albany at Saratoga in 2006. A filly of theirs had to be euthanized on the track, then two races later, the Shanleys were celebrating a stakes victory by Peg’s Prayer, named after Mike Shanley’s deceased godmother and aunt.
Surrounded by his aunt’s family, who drove from Binghamton for the race, Shanley said, “It truly is the highs and lows. It was as terrible as it can be, what happened in the sixth race, and this doesn’t make up for it; it’s just a different experience.”
Besides the circumstances, the Sailor’s Cap story is similar because, in both cases, the owners were prepared for the worst. It’s not something you can ever get used to, but it helps to know the risks beforehand.
“You go from one end of the spectrum to the other,” Bradley said. “When I got in, it was with my eyes open. I knew this was a possibility.”
On Saturday, they ran the Grade II Colonial Turf Cup at Colonial Downs, one year after Sailor’s Cap made a breakthrough by winning that race, a Grade III in 2008.
Since then, he had pushed his earnings over $600,000. With two Grade III’s, he had begun to establish some potential stud value.
The odds of having a two-time stakes winner with your first and only horse are astronomical, and Bradley said Sailor’s Cap death hasn’t soured him on owning horses. Sailor’s Cap’s winnings have already allowed him to buy into another horse, a filly named Nylons who was purchased at Saratoga last August and will debut at Churchill Downs on Thursday.
“The racing gods are bittersweet,” he said. “But it’s hard to articulate your emotions. You’re at the top of the roller coaster, then you’re at the bottom.”
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