June 7, 2023

Lady Eli holds on to take Diana

Lady Eli wins the Diana Stakes (G1) at Saratoga under jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. on Saturday, July 22, 2017 (c) Teresa Genaro

by Teresa Genaro

No matter how many times he watches her run, no matter what she’s overcome, no matter how many reasons she’s given him to be confident, owner Jay Hanley is a nervous wreck when his superstar filly Lady Eli takes to the track.

“I was nervous for the whole race, and I was nervous all day,” he said in the winners’ circle after the Diana Stakes (G1) with partner Sol Kumin. “You know what she means to us.”

And while the five-year-old mare got her ninth win in 12 starts, the race was not exactly uneventful.

Antonoe, breaking from post two right next to stablemate Lady Eli in stall three, broke through the gate before the start of the race; Lady Eli’s gate opened as well, but, a pro as always, she merely walked out, and waited patiently for her fellow Chad Brown trainee to get back in the starting gate.

That wasn’t the only waiting Team Eli would have to do: after her head finish over pacesetter Quidura, the stewards announced an inquiry, looking at the stretch run, including the top two and third-place finisher Antonoe.

“I wasn’t nervous at the inquiry,” Hanley said. “I saw what I saw and I thought we were good. But (the incident before the start) scared me. I did not like that. You never like to see your horse break through gate entering a Grade 1 race.”

Brown concurred.

“Never a good sign,” he said. “You can probably walk through the grandstand here and talk to the people who actually wager their money every day, and they’ll tell you most of the times that happens, they don’t win.”

Kumin wasn’t quite as sanguine about the finish, particularly as he watched Antonoe speed up the inside.

“I saw Chad’s Juddmonte Ferrari coming up the fence, and I started to get really nervous,” he said. “Quidura ran a hell of a race, and that’s the horse we were most terrified of.”

This month marks the two-year anniversary of the injury that almost ended Lady Eli’s career and threatened her life. After stepping on a nail following her win in the Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1) in July 2015, the daughter of Divine Park developed laminitis. She made her comeback to the races at Saratoga last August, finishing second by less than a length in the Ballston Spa (G2).

The filly whose brilliance and backstory have captured the hearts and imaginations of racing fans was greeted with cheers from the clubhouse when she returned to the winner’s circle.

“She’s something very special,” Hanley said. “She transcends us, and we’re so happy to be a part of it.”

“Today was one of her greatest races to date,” Brown stated. “Giving eight pounds to the horse she ran down late in the stretch after breaking through the gate, going a little wide, she just overcame everything. Today she proved that she’s one of the all-time greats.”

Less than two lengths away from being undefeated, Lady Eli has earned $2.7 million, and with every win, her value increases, a reality that Hanley knows he’ll soon have to face.

“We don’t ever want to sell a horse,” he said, “but we run a stable where unfortunately we have to be fiscally responsible. She’s unbelievably talented and unbelievably valuable, so we’ve got some big decisions to make going forward.”

For now, though, he’s going to let his blood pressure go back to normal and celebrate his mare’s fifth Grade 1 win.

“She overcomes everything that’s thrown in her path,” he said. “She makes me want to cry.”