A Wild West cowboy who became a key figure in the rise of the Kentucky Derby

Close friends: Colonel E.R. Bradley (left) with grocery chain owner James Butler

Before Arrogate electrified the racing world in last year’s Travers and went on thrilling wins in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the 2017 Pegasus, the then undefeated phenom Nyquist won last year’s 142nd Kentucky Derby under a perfect ride by Mario Gutierrez in the speedy time of 201.3.  It was the second win for trainer Doug O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam, who had the 2012 Derby and Preakness winner, I’ll Have Another, and it put me in mind of the winningest Derby owner of all, the legendary E.R. Bradley.

A Real Lace Irish-American who played a prominent role in establishing Palm Beach as the leading winter resort was Colonel Edward Bradley. His amazing career deserves to be recounted.

Colonel Edward Riley Bradley (1859 –1946) was an American steel mill laborer, gold miner, cowboy, Pony Express rider, businessman and philanthropist. He was also the preeminent owner and breeder of Thoroughbred racehorses during the first three decades of the 20th Century. Testifying before a United States Senate committee in April 1934, Bradley identified himself as a “speculator, raiser of racehorses and gambler”.

Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, there is more legend than fact concerning Bradley’s early years from 1874 until his arrival in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1891. His ancestors were from Draperstown, County Londonderry. His father is buried in the Sixtowns Chapel in Draperstown.

Billy the Kid was ‘bad news’

By the time he had amassed a fortune in business and was being written about in newspapers and magazines across the United States, Bradley fueled the myths by revealing almost nothing about those years. What is known is that at age 14, Edward Bradley was working as a roller in a steel mill before heading for Texas in 1874 to work on a ranch. During the Wild West era, he traveled about, working as a cowboy, a scout for General Nelson A. Miles during the Indian War campaigns, was a friend of Wyatt Earp and considered Billy the Kid to be bad news.

Whatever the myths may be, Bradley did in fact become successful as a gambler and eventually established a bookmaking partnership that served horse racing bettors at racetracks in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee, and in St. Louis, Missouri, where he married local girl Agnes Cecilia Curry. He eventually went to Chicago, where he would own a hotel, and maintain business interests for the remainder of his life.

By 1891, Bradley had accumulated considerable wealth. Recognizing the potential in sunny Florida, he went to St. Augustine, where he speculated in real estate. In 1898, an opportunity arose that led him to build the Beach Club on Lake Worth Lagoon in Palm Beach. The exclusive restaurant and private gambling casino made him enormously wealthy, and he would expand operations to New Orleans, with the opening of the Palmetto Club.

In 1898 Edward Bradley purchased his first racehorse, which quickly led to the acquisition of others and, in 1906, he bought Ash Grove Stock Farm, a 400-acre property near Lexington, Kentucky, which he renamed Idle Hour Stock Farm.

The rise of Kentucky

Acquiring additional land, the expanded 1,000-acre farm became the leading Thoroughbred breeding operation in the American South and added greatly to the rise of Kentucky as the most important horse breeding state in America and the Kentucky Derby as the country's premier race.

At Idle Hour Stock farm, Bradley built first-class stables and breeding and training facilities. The colonial-style architecture of its barns featured vita glass windows, designed to be transparent to ultraviolet rays of light. Bradley also established an equine cemetery where horses each received a marble headstone. A constant innovator, Bradley introduced the fibre skullcap worn by jockeys and, as a racetrack owner, made improvements to the starting gates.

All his horses were given a name that began with the Bradley ‘B’. His stallion, Black Toney, purchased from James R. Keene in 1912, became the farm’s first important sire.

Bradley was close friends with grocery chain owner James Butler and often stayed with him at Butler’s Eastview Farm in Westchester, where the Butler grandchildren remember him giving them each $100 on Christmas mornings — a princely sum in the 1920s. Later Bradley gave young Bea MacGuire, called ‘beauteous Beatrice MacGuire’ in the society columns around the time of her debut, a racing interest in a champion filly he had named for her — Bee Mac.

What impressed a traffic cop

One day Butler and Bradley were hurrying down the Garden State Parkway when a New Jersey policeman pulled their chauffeur over for speeding. “I’ll take care of this, Jim,” said Bradley and got out of the car to discuss the matter with the cop. He came back awhile later and said, “No luck.” Then Butler got out of the car and tried. When he came back he was poker-faced and merely said to the driver, “Drive on.”

Finally, Bradley couldn’t control himself and said, “What the hell did you say to him? I couldn’t get anywhere.”

“Why, I told him I was riding with the great Edward Riley Bradley, and he let us off the hook straightaway.”

Bradley won an unprecedented four Kentucky Derbys with Behave Yourself (1921), Bubbling Over (1926), Burgoo King (1932), and Brokers Tip (1933).

He also owned the Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans from 1926 to 1934 and invested in Joseph Widener’s Hialeah Race Track in Miami in 1932. For a time, Edward Bradley served as president of the Thoroughbred Horse Association of the United States and, in recognition of his substantial contribution to the prosperity of the State of Kentucky, he was honored with a ‘Kentucky Colonel’ title by the Governor.

Charitable causes

Edward Bradley and his wife, Agnes, had no children but showed a great deal of concern for those in orphanages. Annually in the fall, they held a racing day at Idle Hour Farm to raise money that was donated to various orphanages. They provided funding to various charitable causes, such the Good Samaritan Medical Center and St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach.

His wife died in 1926 and Bradley bequeathed much of their Palm Beach property and personal residence to the city on the condition the land be used as a public park. Seven and 3/4 acres of lakefront property were bequeathed to St. Ann’s parish along with the wish that it be used as a school for girls.

The school that opened in 1926 was named St-Ann-on-the-Lake in honor of Bradley’s wife, although later it changed its name to Rosarian Academy. His ‘Great Floridian’ commemorative plaque still hangs today at E.R. Bradley’s Saloon in West Palm Beach.

Edward R. Bradley died at Idle Hour Stock Farm in 1946 at age 86. He was buried next to his wife in Lexington’s Calvary Cemetery. On November 7, Idle Hour and its bloodstock was sold at auction. The farm was broken up into smaller parcels with one part sold to King Ranch and the core property later bought by the John W. Galbreath family, becoming part of his Darby Dan Farm.

But Bradley’s generous spirit still hovers above the Blue Grass, the twin spires of Churchill Downs, and the Palm Beach places he helped to establish and loved so well.

About the author

A fourth generation horse owner, Jamie MacGuire is a longtime publishing, television and development executive at such companies as Time Inc., Macmillan, The Health Network, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He is chairman of the board of The Man O’ War Project, which, funded by the Earle I. Mack Foundation, is documenting the efficacy of equine-assisted therapy for veterans with PTSD.

MacGuire is also the author or co-author of ten books, the latest of which is Real Lace Revisited: Inside the Hidden World of America’s Irish Aristocracy.


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