January 22, 2022

Lady Eli headlines Diana; eight line up in Sanford

Lady Eli, not to be denied in the Gamely, has now won a Grade 1 for four straight years © BENOIT PHOTO

Saratoga plays host to two very different stakes on Saturday, with turf distaffers lining up in the $500,000 Diana Stakes (G1) and juveniles taking to the track in the $150,000 Sanford Stakes (G3).

Lady Eli is the star of the 1 1/8-mile Diana, making her third start of the year for trainer Chad Brown in this spot. The Divine Park mare is no stranger to the Spa, capturing her racing debut over the track in 2014 and returning from a 13-month recovery from laminitis to finish a close second in the Ballston Spa Stakes (G2) last August.

Lady Eli is 8-3-0 from 11 career starts, including a head second in the Jenny Wiley Stakes (G1) to kick off 2017 and a half-length victory in the Gamely Stakes (G1) most recently. The dark bay five-year-old just missed by a nose in last season’s Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1), and keeps regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr. in the saddle.

“In the Gamely, she adapted to a slow pace and overcame it,” Brown said. “It looks like there might be a slow pace in here as well. We’re confident she can place herself where we need her. She likes the track here and the Diana is a special race for our team.

“She’s training super and has had adequate time between races after a long ship back from the Gamely,” he added. “We’re looking forward to running her again, especially at Saratoga where she broke her maiden and made her comeback last year.”

Among the five runners lining up against Lady Eli is stablemate Antonoe, who took an allowance in her U.S. debut at Keeneland in April and captured the Just a Game Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park on June 10. The First Defence four-year-old was a Group 3 winner in France and retains Javier Castellano while trying nine furlongs for the first time in this contest.

“She was sent to me in really good shape; I’m not going to claim we did anything magical with her but we put her in our program and she’s responded,” Brown said. “She’s a top-class horse. I was more concerned with the cutback (to one mile) in the Just a Game than to this. A mile-and-an-eighth is fine for her.”

Dickinson snapped a three-race win streak when third by three parts of a length in the Just a Game, which followed a head score over Lady Eli in the Jenny Wiley. The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained mare ran fourth in her seasonal bow, the Marshua’s River Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park in January, before capturing both the Suwannee River Stakes (G3) and Hillsborough Stakes (G2). Paco Lopez has been aboard ever since the Suwannee River and will be in the saddle Saturday.

“She’s training well and came out of her last race excellent,” McLaughlin said. “She gives us great confidence because she’s only been beaten twice on the turf and in her last race, she gave both the winner (Antonoe) and (Sassy Little Lila) eight pounds each. I have a lot of respect for both Antonoe and Lady Eli, but at least the weights are shifting in Dickinson’s favor, so we’ll see.

“The race doesn’t seem to have a lot of pace, so that’s a little of a concern,” he added. “Lady Eli going 1 1/8 miles last out was close to the front end, so she might show pace. We’ll leave it up to Paco, but she’s been training great. She’s here and will get to walk out of her own stall for a change.”

Also entered are Grade 3 winners Quidura and My Impression for trainers Graham Motion and Shug McGaughey, respectively. The former finished third in the Jenny Wiley before running second last out in the New York Stakes (G2). The Dubawi four-year-old makes her Saratoga debut and only the seventh start of her career in this spot. My Impression was off-the-board in her only previous try at the Spa and enters here following a runner-up effort in the Dr. James Penny Memorial Stakes (G3).

Junior Alvarado has the call on Quidura while Jose Ortiz rides My Impression.

“She runs good almost every time,” McGaughey said of My Impression. “Going a mile-and-an-eighth with Ortiz on her will help. She’s trained good and had a good work on the turf the other day. She’s lightly raced this year. She’ll be right off of it (the pace), I would think.”

Rounding out the Diana field is Harmonize, who has been unable to visit the winner’s circle since taking last August’s Del Mar Oaks (G1). The Bill Mott charge ran fourth most recently in the Just a Game and keeps jockey John Velazquez in the irons.

One race before the Diana, eight juvenile colts and geldings will sprint six furlongs in the Sanford. All the runners have one win to their credit but only two have prior stakes experience.

Direct Dial and Admiral Jimmy both ran in the 5 1/2-furlong Tremont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 9, with the former getting his nose in front of Admiral Jimmy to take second while 3 1/4 lengths behind the winner. The Steve Asmussen-trained Direct Dial broke his maiden at first asking by 7 3/4 lengths in a Keeneland maiden on April 26 and brings Jose Ortiz along for this ride.

Admiral Jimmy also took his initial start, but did so on May 3 at Gulfstream Park by 3 1/2 lengths. The Todd Pletcher pupil rallied well in the Tremont under Castellano, who retains the mount on Saturday.

Asmussen and Pletcher are double-handed in the Sanford, as the former also entered Baffin and the latter saddles Bal Harbour. Baffin captured his debut at Churchill Downs on June 22 by 4 3/4 lengths under the returning Ricardo Santana Jr. while Bal Harbour prevailed in his second try at Gulfstream Park on June 8. Velazquez will be aboard Bal Harbour for the first time in this spot.

“Direct Dial has two nice races in him,” Asmussen said. “A win at Keeneland and a nice second-place finish in the Tremont. Baffin broke his maiden very impressively at Churchill in his only start. I’m kind of concerned if he got enough out of it. He won very easily and is no stepping up into a stakes (race) but I think he deserves the opportunity. I feel very good about how both have trained up here at Saratoga as well.”

“Admiral Jimmy got a pretty good education in his last start,” Pletcher noted. “He got a lot of dirt in his face and it took him a little while to adapt to that. Once he did I thought he finished well. Bal Harbour is coming off a good maiden win at Gulfstream in which he encountered a lot of traffic issues and he was able to overcome it. It’s a step up now to the big leagues and we’ll see where we fit.”

Completing the Sanford field are Free Drop Billy, a three-length maiden debut winner for trainer Dale Romans at Churchill; the Brian Lynch-conditioned Psychoanalyze, who took his initial start at Belmont Park by three parts of a length; Firenze Fire, a 3 1/2-length scorer in his first start for trainer Jason Servis at Monmouth; and Nauti Buoy, who captured a maiden by a neck over Laurel Park’s turf for horseman Eric McClellan.