by TERESA GENARO
The Lady is a champ.
Strictly speaking, OK, she’s not. But no one who has watched Lady Eli over the last four years could doubt that she’s got the heart, spirit, and talent of a champion, even if she’s never won an Eclipse Award.
On Travers Day last year, Lady Eli began her comeback from an injury that threatened not only her career, but her life. Off the track for more than a year, she finished second in the Ballston Spa (G2) at Saratoga that day, beaten by less than a length.
There would be no losing this year. Facing four other fillies and mares, including her stablemates Antonoe and Roca Rojo, the latter of which is owned in partnership by Sheep Pond Partners, Lady Eli’s owners, the dark bay/brown mare cruised up the backstretch and off the pace under Irad Ortiz Jr. Beginning to move coming around the final turn, Ortiz brought his mare off the rail and asked her to run, and run she did, passing the pacesetting Dickinson to win by a length and a half.
“That was old school Lady Eli,” said Sheep Pond’s Jay Hanley. “No head, no neck, no nose, no half-length. That was a pretty decisive victory. That was, ‘I got this.'”
Since her return, Lady Eli has a record of three wins and two second-place finishes, all by a half-length or less.
“We get so nervous every time she runs,” Hanley said. “It’s almost too much. I thought I was going to throw up at the quarter pole.”
“It’s heart attack city,” added partner Sol Kumin.
Perhaps fortunately for the duo’s blood pressure, they didn’t know until four days ago that their prized mare was going to run this weekend. They got a call from trainer Chad Brown saying that he was going to “enter her and look” at the Ballston Spa. They knew what that meant.
“It’s Chad-speak,” Hanley said.
“It means we’re running,” explained Kumin. “We were both kind of scrambling because we weren’t mentally prepared for this.”
Last year at this time, they worried about Lady Eli’s recovery. Was she fit enough? Was she healed enough? Was she the same? Now, they worry about what every horse owner worries about: What will be the pace be like? How good is that other horse?
Lady Eli was the first horse purchased by the partnership. Peter Bradley’s Bradley Thoroughbreds had bought her as a yearling for $160,000 at the 2013 Keeneland September yearling sale, then pinhooked her to the partners seven months later at Keeneland for the same price. By Divine Park out of the Saint Ballado mare Sacre Coeur, Lady Eli has earned just over $3 million in a 13-race career in which she’s never been worse than second and is less than a length away from being undefeated.
She is entered in the Keeneland November sale of breeding stock, a decision borne of practicality for a partnership that’s trying to build a racing program. Neither Kumin nor Hanley helms a breeding program, and her value is too much to leave on the table, though they continue to agonize over Lady Eli’s future.
“It’s probably the toughest [racing] decision we’ll ever have to make,” Hanley said.
“But we’ll do what we can,” said Kumin, “to make sure that she ends up in the right place, a place that we can visit her.”
Lady Eli won the Diana (G1) here earlier this year, and Brown, who grew up going to the races at Saratoga, gave her many admirers one more chance to see her, and to see her go out as she should: a winner.
“I’m so glad we decided to bring her here today, for a lot of reasons,” he said. “We got a good race into her again and most important, all the fans at Saratoga, and beyond got to see her race here one more time.”