Welcome to this week’s chapter of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.
Each Tuesday in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing news that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.
Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.
As for this week, our story centers on the way horse racing’s most heartwarming comeback tale in recent memory grew even more endearing.
Few horses have enough talent and class to win Grade 1 stakes at ages 2, 3, 4 and 5.
But to win Grade 1 races at 2 and 3, then the suffer the ravages of laminitis and win Grade 1 races at 4 and 5, there’s only one.
The one and only Lady Eli.
On Saturday at Santa Anita Park, all of the heart and determination that has made Sheep Pond Partners' mare such a special star was put on full display when the 5-year-old registered a hard-fought half-length victory in the Grade 1, $300,000 Gamely Stakes.
“Lady Eli dug down deep and got the job done. She showed her class,” trainer Chad Brown said. “Since her first race, she has never disappointed. She’s had three losses and they were disappointing but only in terms of the result not the effort. She’s turned in 11 great efforts in a row, which is hard to do, and won Grade 1s in four straight years, so she’s put herself in elite company and I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
The amazing story of Lady Eli is well-documented but never fails to amaze or evoke an emotional response. Undefeated in three starts at 2, capped by a win in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, she reeled off three more wins at 3, topped by a decisive victory in the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks on July 4, 2015.
But while returning to Brown’s barn after the Oaks, she stepped on a roofing nail and developed a serious infection in her hoof. Soon she was battling for her life as her condition worsened. Lady Eli was diagnosed with laminitis, an insidious equine disease that leads to a painful rotation of the bones in a horse’s hoof. For many horses, including Secretariat and Barbaro, laminitis can be fatal, yet Lady Eli’s will to survive proved as great as her will to reach the finish line first.
Her owners, Sol Kumin and Jay Hanley, spared no expense in treating and caring for her. Brown, assistant trainer Cherie DeVaux and their staff worked around the clock with a team of veterinarians headed by Luis Castro and Bryan Fraley and Lady Eli slowly began to improve.
Before the end of the year, the daughter of Divine Park was healthy enough to rejoin Brown’s stable.
“When she got sick, at first I didn’t know the magnitude of laminitis,” Kumin said, “but when you have a terrific racehorse and you watch her get sicker you find out what it means. We learned how something so sweet can turn so quickly. Now when you get a call from your trainer and hear that a horse has a bone bruise and will miss some time it’s not a big deal after what she went through. She’s such a fighter and has so much heart.”
Patient handling and some minor setbacks delayed Lady Eli’s 2016 return until Aug. 27 in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa at Saratoga, when she forged to the lead in mid-stretch but suffered her first defeat as Strike Charmer surged past her and recorded a three-quarters of a length victory.
In her next start, some 15 months after the onset of her illness, Lady Eli put a glittering exclamation point on her comeback by capturing the Grade 1 Flower Bowl at Belmont Park.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle that she was able to come back and continue winning Grade 1 races,” said Fraley, an equine podiatrist for Rood and Riddle in Lexington, Ky., in a Thoroughbred Racing Commentary story from last year.
The joy of the Flower Bowl was followed by the sting of a nose loss in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, but she was kept in training at 5 and opened the year with a loss by a head in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley at Keeneland last month.
That led to the trip west and Saturday’s uplifting victory that made her a four-time Grade 1 winner as she triumphed for the eighth time in 11 career starts.
“I was anxious before the race,” Brown said. “I’m always that way whenever I put her in the starting gate. I know she’s in excellent health and is training well but I just want to see her continue her legacy as one of the greats.”
The Gamely only added another brilliant chapter in that legacy.
Though favored at 3-5 in a small field of five, Lady Eli faced a tough challenge in the mile and an eighth Gamely, having to contend with the early speed of Avenge and the late kick of Goodyearforroses.
“The Gamely was particularly powerful and meaningful,” Hanley said. “She had to stick close to a pace we were worried about with Avenge. We didn’t want her to get away. But we also knew Goodyearforroses would be coming.”
Avenge, making her first start since finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, grabbed the early lead with jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. keeping Lady Eli closer to the pace than usual in a small field. After six furlongs in a quick 1:09.69, Lady Eli was running alongside Avenge and soon edged clear of her.
Ahead by a length at the eighth pole, the 5-year-old mare then had to brace for a late challenge from Goodyearforroses.
“I was nervous,” Kumin said, “but Irad did a tremendous job.”
Under left-handed urging from Ortiz, Lady Eli responded and held Goodyearforroses safe by a half-length in an effort that left her connections even more amazed with their courageous mare.
“The Gamely showed her versatility and how good she is,” Hanley said. “It was like two different match races in one race. We had to have a match race on the front end with Avenge where we put her away. Then Irad and the horse had to keep enough in the tank to hold off a late charge from Goodyearforroses. To me, both of those horses, without colluding, were gunning for us and Lady Eli showed her heart and class to overcome that. For a short field, it was a sneaky, difficult race for us.”
For Kumin, who hopped aboard a 7 a.m. flight from Boston with his son, Jax, to be at Santa Anita later in the day for the race, it was a moment he will not soon forget.
“It was unbelievable,” said Kumin, who won Santa Anita’s Grade 2 Monrovia Stakes two races later with Illuminant, a horse he owns in a partnership with Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and SF Racing. “The loss in the Jenny Wiley hurt. There are some losses that hurt more than others and that one hurt. So for her come to back and get that Grade 1 win at 5 felt as good as any win we’ve ever had.”
Looking ahead, Brown says the Grade 1 Diana on July 22 at Saratoga will be Lady Eli’s next start and, if all goes well, after that the likely targets are the Flower Bowl and then the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, which looms as the dynamic mare’s final start.
“It’s not 100 percent certain, but most likely the Breeders’ Cup will be her last race,” Kumin said. “One of the things we keep asking Chad is if she has the heart and the will to fight and run. We’re playing with house money right now and Chad keeps saying she’s tearing down the barn and she really wants to run, so we’ll run her, and each time she runs we’ll make sure we’re there to cheer for her. We’re going to embrace it and enjoy it to the fullest because horses like her don’t come around too often.”
When you consider everything, the Grade 1 wins, overcoming laminitis and continuing to run and succeed at the sport’s highest levels, there are indeed few horses are as beloved and have tugged on heartstrings as forcefully as Lady Eli.
“The first time she worked on the turf, Chad told me she was a freak of nature,” Hanley said. “Everything we ask of her, she does it and does it well, exceedingly well. First-class well. She continually amazes us with the way she does things so easily and with so much class. I know we’ll never own another horse like her in our lifetime. She’s that special.”
The Also-Eligible List
Here are some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry: