May 21, 2018

Lady Eli – 2017 Champion Turf Female

Lady Eli is one of the most heartwarming stories in racing © BENOIT PHOTO

Sheep Pond Partners’ Lady Eli, whose victory over life-threatening laminitis earned her as many fans as her exploits on the racecourse, has concluded her career with an Eclipse Award as champion turf female. Had she not been so star-crossed, her trophy cabinet would have been even larger, perhaps including more than one statuette.

TURF FEMALE FIRST-PLACE VOTES
LADY ELI 203
Wuheida (GB) 33
Off Limits 12
Cambodia 1
La Colonel 1

Long praised by Chad Brown as unlike any other he’s trained, Lady Eli burst onto the scene with a perfect two-year-old campaign highlighted by the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1). Her stunning defeat of an international field put her in contention for a divisional Eclipse Award. But traditionally inclined voters saw no reason to deviate from the historical norm, bestowing champion two-year-old filly honors upon Take Charge Brandi, the top dirt performer.

Lady Eli was similarly imperious at three, extending her unbeaten sequence through another comprehensive tally in the 2015 Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1). Surely the world lay at her feet.

But misfortune, and near-tragedy, lay at her feet too. On the way back to her Belmont barn, she trod upon a nail. Thus began the fateful chain of events that led to her bout of laminitis, when her closest connections and farthest admirers alike were brought to the point of despair.

Lady Eli’s a fierce competitor, however, and she fought her laminitis as she’d fought her rivals on the track. Her steely attitude, fortified by constant care from assistant trainer Cherie DeVaux and her veterinary team, proved stronger than the dread disease. She was ready to embark upon the long road to recovery on the farm.

As Lady Eli convalesced, the initial happiness about her survival gradually grew into a bolder hope of a comeback. Could she possibly return to racing? Or reach her former level?

Sheep Pond’s Sol Kumin and Jay Hanley wanted to give her the chance. So Lady Eli rejoined Brown in the winter of 2015-16 and soon got back into the swing of things. Her old spirit was there. So was her raw physical talent.

Ready to resume at Saratoga in the summer of 2016, Lady Eli finished an incredible second in the Ballston Spa (G2) off the nearly 14-month layoff. She might even have won, if it hadn’t been for a ridiculously fast pace that set it up for deep-closing Strike Charmer. But there was no time for disappointment. Lady Eli was back – and clearly retained her ability. Rebounding next time in the Flower Bowl Invitational (G1), she was all set for more Breeders’ Cup glory back at Santa Anita in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1). That is, until British shipper Queen’s Trust mugged her on the line. It was still a remarkable performance for a filly playing catch-up in her third start back from laminitis.

Lady Eli was kept in training for a 2017 campaign, when she’d have a far better foundation to build upon for the Filly & Mare Turf at Del Mar. Caught late by the race-fit Dickinson in the April 15 Jenny Wiley (G1) at Keeneland, Lady Eli was now sharpened for her summer engagements. She invaded Santa Anita for the May 27 Gamely (G1), outkicking Goodyearforroses in a snappy 1:45.29 for 1 1/8 miles.

Back at the Spa for the July 22 Diana (G1), Lady Eli came out on top in an eventful running that featured drama before, during, and after the race. Stablemate Antonoe broke through the gate prematurely, pulling Lady Eli offsides, as it were, to open her gate as well. Yet she defied that usually bad omen, despite getting off to a bobbling start when the race commenced in earnest. As the 123-pound highweight, Lady Eli gave the pace-controlling Quidura eight pounds and still collared her by a head, finishing the nine-furlong test in 1:46.17. The duo, and close third Antonoe, were involved in a stretch scrum that drew a stewards’ inquiry, but the result stood.

Next on the agenda was another crack at the Ballston Spa on Travers Day, and Lady Eli was at her stylish best. Zooming past Dickinson to win handily in 1:39.70 for 1 1/16 miles, she brought down the house.

All signs pointed to a peak effort in the Breeders’ Cup. But once again, a fairy tale finish was denied – this time by bad luck. Lady Eli was struck into as the full field jockeyed for early position coming out of the chute. Sustaining deep cuts to her hind legs and losing a shoe, she wasn’t able to quicken as usual and checked in seventh behind British shipper Wuheida. That’s the only time she was out of the exacta in her career.

Lady Eli had to be treated for her injuries, prompting Hanley and Kumin to withdraw her from the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale. As she healed at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm near Lexington, Kentucky, her owners had another decision to make: press on for a six-year-old campaign in 2018? Or retire her to the broodmare life?

The Sheep Pond Partners preferred to call it a career, considering all that Lady Eli had achieved and overcome, rather than run any further risks. Her 2017 record of 5-3-1-0, $790,000, brought up her overall mark to 14-10-3-0, $2,959,800.

Despite the Breeders’ Cup anticlimax, Lady Eli was a far more compelling figure than her domestically based rivals. And the victorious Wuheida, who had an injury-affected season herself, didn’t have the body of work in Europe to endorse her for the championship.

Thus Lady Eli became the latest champion arising from historic Runnymede Farm, a fitting honoree in conjunction with the Paris, Kentucky, nursery’s sesquicentennial. Since its founding in 1867, the Clay family’s establishment has produced such 19th century legends as Hanover, Miss Woodford, and Ben Brush. Runnymede bookended the 20th century with Hall of Famer Roamer and Japanese star Agnes Digital, who became a champion after the turn of the millennium in 2001.

Lady Eli’s 21st century success is particularly meaningful to the Runnymede legacy. Runnymede and proprietor Catesby Clay bred Lady Eli as well as both of her parents, her 2008 Met Mile (G1)-winning sire Divine Park and her dam, Sacre Coeur, a daughter of Saint Ballado and the farm’s matriarch Kazadancoa.

Twice sold at Keeneland, Lady Eli went to Bradley Thoroughbreds for $160,000 as a September yearling, and Hanley purchased her for the same price as an April two-year-old in training. Plans call for her to come full circle, at last, at Keeneland November 2018.

By the time she struts the auction ring, Lady Eli will hopefully be carrying her first foal by War Front. Between her first suitor’s commercial appeal and the champion mare’s own merits, the fireworks should fly.

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