Sheep Pond Partners’ Lady Eli is “courage exemplified in a racehorse.” So summarized Santa Anita track announcer Michael Wrona after the 3-5 favorite held on determinedly from Goodyearforroses in Saturday’s $300,000 Gamely (G1).
Since beating off the dread disease laminitis, which threatened to cut her life short just as she was reaching her prime, Lady Eli has come back at a high level. She captured last fall’s Flower Bowl Invitational (G1) in her second start off the long layoff, then suffered two awfully tough beats at the wire. Mugged by British shipper Queen’s Trust in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) at Santa Anita, Lady Eli experienced an eerily similar reverse, thanks to Dickinson, in the April 15 Jenny Wiley (G1) at Keeneland.
Trainer Chad Brown prescribed the Gamely as her next port of call. The nine-furlong feature was a logical spot both from a course and distance perspective, as well as an opportunity to give her a well-deserved win. Still, it turned out to be a trickier task due to the pace scenario in a small field of five.
Avenge, last seen finishing third in the Filly & Mare Turf, was the controlling speed. And as the 2016 Rodeo Drive (G1) and John C. Mabee (G2) winner, she was a proper threat to wire the field.
Thus Lady Eli didn’t have the luxury of indulging in her usual off-the-pace style. Instead, regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr. had to keep close tabs on Avenge through quick fractions of :23.23, :46.46 and 1:09.69 on the firm turf. Lady Eli adjusted like a champion, pressuring Avenge until the leader succumbed.
But after Lady Eli edged clear at the mile mark in a rapid 1:33.37, the stalking Goodyearforroses launched her attack. Lady Eli could have been vulnerable considering that the race didn’t unfold as preferred. Rising to the occasion, she threw in a last eighth in :11.92 to see off Goodyearforroses by a half-length and clocked a final time of 1:45.29.
Avenge reported home a further 3 1/4 lengths astern. She salvaged third by a half-length from Mokat and Pretty Girl, the respective fourth and fifth separated by a nose.
Lady Eli has now earned a Grade 1 trophy for four consecutive seasons, following the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1), 2015 Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1) and the aforementioned Flower Bowl. Unbeaten through her first six starts, she also landed the Miss Grillo (G3) at two and the Appalachian (G3) and Wonder Again at three. Lady Eli lost her perfect record in her comeback from laminitis in the Ballston Spa (G2) last summer at Saratoga, where she was a heroic runner-up in a blisteringly fast running.
Never worse than second, with her combined margin of defeat about a length, Lady Eli sports a mark of 11-8-3-0, $2,419,800. She was bred by Kentucky’s historic Runnymede Farm and Catesby Clay.
Quotes from Santa Anita
Winning rider Irad Ortiz Jr. on Lady Eli: “I just tried to follow the speed, which was Avenge today. I tried to follow as close as possible and it worked out. It’s always a nice trip when I get to come out here.”
Assistant trainer Cherie DeVaux: “(Trainer) Chad (Brown) had spoken to Irad and told him about getting her in the clear. He didn’t want him to take too much hold of her because he didn’t want her to have too much to do. He was concerned about Avenge getting an easy lead.
“Because of everything she’s been through, it’s way more emotional when she runs. This is the most emotional I’ve ever gotten with any horse. Her tenacity is what makes her great. It was really emotional for me today because this is the first time I’ve saddled her. The Breeders’ Cup (Filly & Mare Turf) is the ultimate objective, yes.”
Co-owner Jay Hanley: “Cherie was with her 24/7 (during her battle with laminitis). There was no chance of her racing again. I mean forget about that. That was totally secondary at the time. It was clear she was a world class filly and it was just about trying to save her life.
“The fact that she can come back and do this…it’s amazing, it’s absolutely amazing. All we can do as owners is try to be good stewards and that’s our job. We try to make good decisions but for the most part we just try to put our faith in Chad and his team.
“This is all gravy to us. We’re playing with house money now. I feel like we wanted to bring her back, mostly for the fans. It’s to showcase her for the fans. The fans that are here today, I’m sure many are here to see her.”
Co-owner Sol Kumin: “We went through all of the emotions (during the laminitis). At first, we just wanted her to live and be OK. Then, it seemed like she wanted to do more and to run so Chad brought her back into training. Then, you think she won’t have the same form and you don’t know until you get to that first race. Now we feel like she’s back.”
Hanley: “Absolutely she’s a champion and showed her true colors today.
“I think I feel like we were measuring Avenge and Goodyearforroses was measuring us. There was a little bit of a chess game going on up front the whole way but the bottom line is she still outkicked Goodyearforroses and ran by Avenge. At the end of the day it was a really good and strategic ride by Irad.
Kumin: “It feels good, this is a special horse. She’s got us super-hooked on this sport and she’s been through so much.
“She’s the first horse we bought as part of our ownership. I can’t say enough about Chad Brown and his assistant Cherie. This is all thanks to them. It’s been such a journey.
“We couldn’t be happier but we were nervous. We thought it was a good spot but we were nervous. They were going kind of quick up front and she was closer to the pace than we would have thought. Goodyearforroses was coming on the outside and that’s how we got beat a couple of times right on the wire (in her past two). We were a little nervous but she’s a champion and showed us what she’s made of so we couldn’t be happier.
“The goal is the Filly & Mare Breeders’ Cup Turf. If all goes well, that’s the plan. We’ll take it one race at a time.”
Kumin celebrated a graded double on the card, for he also owns a share of Saturday’s $201,035 Monrovia (G2) winner Illuminant.
Last year’s Gamely heroine, Illuminant has had her share of problems too, but has found renewed success as a sprinter down the hill for trainer Michael McCarthy. Well handled by Flavien Prat, the 8-5 chance rallied up the inside to collar Coniah by a half-length. Enola Gray, the 6-5 favorite, tired to fifth after forcing the pace.
Illuminant was sidelined after her career high in the 2016 Gamely and actually sold to SF Bloodstock for $900,000 at Fasig-Tipton last November. As it turned out, her prior owners, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, teamed up with Kumin’s Head of Plains Partners and SF Racing to form a fresh partnership. Illuminant returned victorious for the revamped ownership group in the March 10 Wishing Well over this course and about 6 1/2-furlong distance. She tried to stretch out again in the Jenny Wiley, only to wind up seventh behind Dickinson and Lady Eli, and prospered on the cutback here. By finishing in 1:12.13, Illuminant advanced her record to 14-6-2-1, $536,243. She was a close fourth in the 2016 Monrovia when it was staged in its traditional spot on the calendar, at the turn of the year.
Aron Wellman of Eclipse Thoroughbreds on Illuminant: “We wanted to defend our title in the Gamely, but this race made more sense. Sol (Kumin) owns part of Lady Eli, so this just made more sense. We’re very happy with the way she ran.
“She’s high maintenance, to say the least. The good ones are, that’s for sure. All credit goes to Michael and his staff. For her to still be winning graded stakes at age 5 is incredible testament to his horsemanship and his whole team.”
Winning trainer Michael McCarthy: “It took us a little while to kind of get her lined out and she battled a few things but once we were able to get her on track, she took us there.
“This is the first time that she’s actually really laid off the pace, going down the hill, so I was a little nervous to say the least. But once she got going across the dirt, I thought she had it. Going across the dirt I could see her quicken up and liven.”
In the $147,000 Daytona (G3) earlier on the card, Rockingham Ranch’s Stormy Liberal edged Ambitious Brew by a measured neck to notch his fourth straight stakes win, all coming down the hill. The 1-2 favorite attended the pace before asserting under confident handling by Norberto Arroyo, completing about 6 1/2 grassy furlongs in 1:12.43.
Since being claimed for $40,000 and joining trainer Peter Miller last October, Stormy Liberal has placed second in the San Simeon (G3) and swept the Clocker’s Corner, Joe Hernandez, and Siren Lure in succession. His resume now reads 20-7-6-1, $432,070.
Winning rider Norberto Arroyo Jr. on Stormy Liberal: “With him (Ambitious Brew) being the only speed in the race today I was afraid they’d get the jump on me.
“It worked out well and my horse put himself right into the race. I had them from the get go and I knew I had more horse than him the whole time.
“They might have given me more trouble if we were running another sixteenth of a mile. I felt him (Ambitious Brew) coming back a little but I realized it was my horse slowing down, waiting. I could feel it. I saw the wire and knew he wouldn’t have enough time to get to us.”