Trainer Buff Bradley was already suitably impressed by the manner in which his current stable star handled what was asked of him Nov. 17.
In his final serious work in advance of his expected start in the Nov. 24 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (G1) at Churchill Downs, Bradley's graded stakes winner The Player cruised through a five-furlong breeze easy as he pleased, breaking off about two lengths behind a set of fellow workers and finishing up three lengths in front.
While the colt's official clocking of 1:00 was the fastest of 30 moves at the distance beneath the Twin Spires Friday, the son of Street Hero wasn't done touting his energy level to his co-owner and conditioner.
"He didn't make three rounds around the barn and he was already hounding me for peppermints," Bradley said. "So, that's about how tired he was."
A longtime sentimental favorite around the Bradley barn, The Player is on the cusp of backing up every high opinion his connections have placed upon him. Fresh off his first graded stakes win in the Oct. 28 Hagyard Fayette Stakes (G2) at Keeneland, the 4-year-old chestnut figures to be among the favorites when he makes his top-level debut in the 1 1/8-mile Clark Handicap.
The Player had been teasing Bradley and fellow co-owner Carl Hurst of a next-level breakout for the better part of a year. His first try against graded company saw the big-bodied colt run second, beaten just three-quarters of a length by future grade 1 winner Cupid in the 2016 Indiana Derby (G2). He was given the rest of the season off following that outing and, after a couple of stakes losses this summer, he showed signs of getting all the pieces together with an allowance win at Ellis Park Aug. 27 and subsequent runner-up finish to Awesome Slew in the Ack Ack Stakes (G3) at Churchill in September.
Since his three-length win in the 1 1/8-mile Fayette, The Player has signaled his momentum is at its peak with consecutive bullet workouts, including a five-furlong drill in :59 3/5 Nov. 10. His effort on Friday was particularly notable as he clocked splits of :24.20 and :36.20, before galloping out six furlongs in 1:13.40 under regular pilot and Hall of Famer, Calvin Borel.
"He's done really well since the Fayette," Bradley said. "There were a couple horses that broke off right in front of him and Calvin just let him sit on the outside for a little bit and then tucked him inside, got back about four to five lengths and in the stretch just kind of eased up to them and went on by them. He did it pretty well.
"Afterwards, Calvin said he couldn't be any better right now. I feel really good about going into this race where we are with him and thinking that he's getting to that level where he is at the top of his game."
In addition to his endearing, dog-like personality, The Player represents an emotional touchstone for Bradley as the colt was one of the final horses he and father Fred Bradley, bred in partnership with Hurst before the elder Bradley's passing in May 2016.
The fact that playful, chestnut baby grew up to win a graded stakes at Keeneland was overwhelming enough for the man who also conditioned grade 1 winner Brass Hat and champion Groupie Doll in his family's colors. If the Frankfort, Ky., native ends up leading The Player into the Churchill winner's circle next Friday, there will be no downplaying the levels of significance that moment would represent.
"We've always had high hopes for this horse," Bradley said. "His personality is just one of a kind really, and to see him become a top racehorse as well and put it all together ... winning at Keeneland was very special. I just know how much my Dad would have loved it.
"Hopefully (The Player) can keep going forward off that and become a little superstar."