Evening Jewel is a 3-year-old filly with a fast turn of foot, a competitive spirit and a calling in life that she cannot comprehend.
She is keeping Tom Braly alive.
Evening Jewel is a world-class thoroughbred. On April 30, she lost the most prestigious 3-year-old filly race held each year, the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, by a fraction of a nostril. She has started nine times, was sixth in her first race and has been first three times and second five times since.
Braly is 72 years old. In his heart, he is a sportswriter. In real life, he is a successful insurance company owner. In the world of horse racing, where sheiks and billionaires buy in bulk and triple their chances, Braly is a penny slot machine player. The most he has paid for a horse is $200,000. He paid $132,500 for Evening Jewel with hard-line bargaining against a no-wiggle offering price of $150,000.
Right now, he owns four horses, all trained by his friend and business partner, Jim Cassidy. Four is normal for the Braly stable, but Tom regrets his most recent purchase.
"I shouldn't have bought that one," he says. "I'll never get to see it run, and it will just be another headache for Marilyn."
His wife has heard this before and shakes her head, sadly.
Braly was diagnosed with leukemia in 2003. Doctors got that controlled, but it damaged his immune system so he couldn't fight off neck and head cancer. He has been through radiation and chemotherapy and treatment options are getting more difficult.
With Braly's strength waning, attending Evening Jewel's races has become a game-day decision. He was at Keeneland on April 3, when she won the Grade I Ashland. He made it to Louisville, Ky., when Blind Luck got the photo in the Oaks. And he will try his best for Monday's Honeymoon Handicap at Hollywood Park, a $150,000 Grade II on the turf, a race on the same card as the featured $250,000 Grade I Shoemaker.
Marilyn Braly calls Evening Jewel "heaven sent." She doesn't need to explain.
Tom Braly grew up in Long Beach, worked at the Daily Trojan and graduated from USC, then took a job in the early 1960s at the L.A. Mirror, in the days when Los Angeles had four newspapers and journalism was desirable and respected.
"I started as a copy messenger," Braly says. "Pretty soon, I was in charge of 11 people."
Eventually, he became a police reporter, but he never stopped coveting a spot among those working in a golden era of sportswriting.
"I'd sit and watch guys like Sid Ziff, John Hall and Shav Glick," Braly says, "and I came to the conclusion that I'd never be good enough to do what they did."
He had a side job, selling mortgage insurance, and when his daily reporting routine of writing about crime scenes and dead bodies grew tedious, he moved to the insurance business full time. Nearly 45 years later, his Mills Insurance Service, with offices in Lake Forest, Los Alamitos and Palm Desert, has flourished and allowed him to dabble in horse racing.
"Racing was always a fascination," he says. "My family had a box at Hollywood Park, and when I got older and got a little money, I wanted to be around it."
He started by sharing ownership of horses. Then, in 2005, two years after his initial cancer diagnosis, he told Cassidy he wanted in on a higher level. Five years later, he has one of the best horses in the country, one that, with good fortune and continued improvement, could be back at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5 as a big factor in a Breeders' Cup race, maybe even the Ladies Classic.
The series of events that has led him to sudden prominence has left Braly dazzled. It began when Evening Jewel was nipped by Blind Luck at the wire in the Grade I Las Virgenes in February at Santa Anita. Blind Luck's total victory margin in two races over Evening Jewel, probably about six inches, has cost Braly $340,000 in purse money, or $56,666 an inch.
That's lots of money. It's also not the least bit important in the big picture.
"It's amazing," Braly says. "I get to rub elbows with some of the biggest and best owners in the game, and now, lots of times, I go to the winners' circle and have my picture taken and they don't."
Health permitting, Monday will be another chance for Braly to make the trip from his home in Indian Wells to yet another winner's circle. Evening Jewel will carry high weight of 122 pounds, but that is not seen as a detriment, since she always seems to try her best.
Maybe she knows.