First and foremost, there was the eight-month layoff hanging over Elate’s head — a freshening that was necessary, but lengthy nonetheless. Then there was the 1 ¼-mile distance she was being asked to travel in her first outing since November, a route of ground that doesn’t suffer those who lack class or fitness kindly.
In case there weren’t enough challenges for the multiple Grade 1 winner making her season debut in the Grade 2, $750,000 Delaware Handicap on July 14, add to that the presence of another top-level filly, who had already slayed one dragon this year.
The thing with exceptional horses, though, is even when legitimate excuses are at the ready, they render them all unnecessary.
There was a point in the fall when Elate had many believing her to be the best dirt filly in the country, a theory that came undone when she failed to fire in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Nov. 3. In her first outing since that fourth-place effort, the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro served noticed that she remains a massive problem for her foes with when she galloped to a 3 1/4-length victory in the Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park.
Elate’s path to her 4-year-old debut got hindered in the winter, when she was troubled by a splint bone issue that prompted trainer Bill Mott to back off on her early-season conditioning. That the Hall of Fame conditioner felt confident enough to start the dark bay filly back against the likes of Grade 1 winner Unbridled Mo — over a classic distance, no less — was a tip of the hand that Elate was showing him the same kind of form that recorded Grade 1 victories in the Alabama Stakes and Beldame Stakes last year.
While she faltered as the betting favorite in the Distaff, Elate ran every bit like the 3-5 favorite she was in Saturday’s Delaware Handicap. After she raced between rivals early and raced in last in the eight-horse field, as 127-1 longshot Proper Discretion went the opening quarter-mile in :24.21, Claiborne Farm’s and Adele Dilschneider’s homebred starting to pick off rivals off with an outside move on the backstretch and wrested control from the overmatched pacesetter heading into the far turn.
Sneaky Betty tried to make a run at the imposing filly and got within a half-length of Elate as the latter reached the mile mark in 1:38.83, but the 85-1 longshot was quickly dismissed to settle for place honors, as Elate opened up handily in the stretch under Jose Ortiz.
“The horse outside of me [Nikki My Darling] stumbled out of there and ... when I saw her rushing up, I took back,” Ortiz said. “On the backside I thought we were going slow, so I decided to make a move, and she did it. She’s a big filly, so I wanted to get her in her stride on the backside before we hit the turn.
“Off an eight, almost nine-month layoff, [Mott] and everyone did great to get her ready.”
The Delaware surface already has a history of kick-starting Elate’s best form.
An impressive maiden winner first time out in November 2016, Elate went on to lose the first four starts of her 3-year-old campaign, including a worrisome outing in the Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland Stakes, in which she was pulled up and vanned off when Ortiz thought she took a bad step.
It was in the Light Hearted Stakes at Delaware in June last year where she snapped that losing skid and won by 5 1/2 lengths. She further teased of the greater things to come when she was beaten just a head by eventual divisional champion Abel Tasman in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks in July 2017.
Now undefeated in two starts at Delaware, Elate covered the distance Saturday in 2:04.83 on a track rated fast. Sneaky Betty edged Teresa Z by a neck to hold for second, with Fuhriously Kissed fourth.
Unbridled Mo, who defeated champion Unique Bella in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap in April, came in fifth, with graded stakes winner Mopotism sixth.
Out of the Distorted Humor mare Cheery, Elate improved her record to five wins from 11 starts with $1,270,325 in earnings and is expected to target the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 25.