Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Welcome to another edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track. Each week in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past seven days, detailing a story 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 week’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.
This week, we’ll look at a new chapter in one of the sport’s most endearing stories of the last decade.
On Nov. 5 in Lexington, down the road from Churchill Downs and the Breeders’ Cup, the Keeneland November breeding stock sale had one particularly poignant moment.
When the hammer went down, the loud clap signaled that for a $4.2 million price tag, Lady Eli was heading to John Sikura’s Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms to begin a new life as a broodmare.
Without question, a legion of fans will be rooting that her life in the breeding shed proves to be as successful as her racing career. Yes, rooting, because few horses have been as easy to root for as Lady Eli.
There are some horses who are blessed with brilliance. Others have tremendous courage. Blend the two qualities and you have Lady Eli.
The brilliance was seen in victories in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and the Belmont Oaks, Flower Bowl, and Diana in subsequent years.
The heart was a necessity when she came down with a potentially deadly case of laminitis and not only overcame it, but she also became an Eclipse Award winner.
Considering how many horses succumb to laminitis and how rare it is to beat the disease and continue racing at a Grade 1 level, horses like Lady Eli, Paynter, and Bal a Bali are important. They are sources of hope that others in future years can join them in facing a hideous disease and conquering it.
In Lady’s Eli’s case, it wasn’t a perfect comeback. Had this been a Hallmark movie, her last race, in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, would have been devoid of the brutally rough trip that left her with a gash on her leg and postponed plans to sell her as a broodmare for a year.
That mishap resulted in a seventh-place finish, the only time in a 14-race career that she was worse than second, and served as a bookend to a dramatically different type of disappointment in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
On that day at Santa Anita, less than three months removed from when she returned to the races after nearly 14 months on the sidelines due to her illness, she forged to the front in the final sixteenth and battled heroically to the wire only to be caught in the final stride by Queen’s Trust and lost by a nose.
For fans, it was one of those gallant efforts in defeat that was more memorable than some of her wins – just like Seattle Slew’s loss in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
For those closest to her, it was part of the reason why they loved her so deeply.
Lady Eli was picked out at the 2014 Keeneland April 2-year-old sale by trainer Chad Brown, for two relative newcomers to the game in Jay Hanley and Sol Kumin, who formed Sheep Pond Partners with two other silent partners.
Lady Eli took all of them on an amazing ride, giving them the greatest of highs and the most difficult of lows.
For Kumin, it sparked an immense love of the sport that now encompasses part ownership of more than 100 horses, including Triple Crown champion Justify and the probable 3-year-old champion filly in Monomoy Girl, and at least 23 Grade 1 wins this year.
Hanley has also become more active in the sport, though not to Kumin’s degree. Still, the sale of his beloved filly brought back some memories than will never leave him.
"The last couple weeks have been very bittersweet thinking of her leaving our stewardship, but she owes us nothing at all," Hanley told BloodHorse.com. "She's been the best sort of ride we could have ever hoped for, me and my partners. She was the first horse I bought for the partnership with Chad, and she truly is a once-in-a-lifetime individual.
"We're really happy she's going to stay home here and be in Kentucky, and we can come and visit her with our kids. Now we can just enjoy her for the rest of our lives."
Just as he and so many other racing fans have enjoyed watching the class and quality that made Lady Eli one of the decade’s best and most popular horses.
The Also-Eligible List
Here are some of the other noteworthy stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry:
American Pharoah’s sister Chasing Yesterday adds Desi Arnaz Stakes to resume
Jockey Luis Saez gets 2,000th victory
Hall of Fame raising money for education experience
NBC Group to cover Pegasus World Cup races