Overcoming the Odds: Lady Eli

August 16, 2016

Undefeated, dominant, unstoppable, invincible! Lady Eli was on top of the world in 2014 and 2015 she was the top 2 year old and 3 year old turf filly in the country, winning all 6 of her starts in impressive style. The  wins included The Grade 3 Miss Grillo, Grade 3 Appalachian, The Wonder Again, The Grade 1 Belmont Oaks, but her most significant win came in the 2014 Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup JuvenileFillies Turf. With the increasingly impressive resume hopes were very high for the future of the undefeated Chad Brown trained filly.

But in July of 2015 tragedy struck when Lady Eli stepped on a nail and developed Laminitis, a deadly disease of the hoof that is the 2nd leading cause of horse deaths in the world. Too complicate matters worse, she developed the dreaded disease not in one hoof, but in her two front fore feet. Her career was likely over and her life was at stake. It would take a miracle to ever bring her back to the track. Little did we know we were in for that miracle. After a long journey Lady Eli is set to make her next start on August 27th in the Ballston Spa at Saratoga on Travers Day, and we will all be cheering her on as she looks to make one of the most highly anticipated comebacks in racing. Before her return to the track, let’s take a look at the life and journey of a filly who captured the heart of fans and horse racing.

LadyEliFoalPhoto1SherryODowd480Lady Eli was a $160,000 purchase at the Keeneland April sale of 2-year-olds in training by Jay Hanley, a Nantucket-based general contractor and real estate developer with a strong professional background in finance. Hanley owns 2-year-old Lady Eli in partnership with three friends racing under Sheep Pond Partners, a stable named after an area in Nantucket. Lady Eli had been pinhooked by Bradley Thoroughbreds for the same amount from Runnymede at the 2013 Keeneland September sale. Lady Eli is a bay filly sired by Divine Park and is out of a homebred Saint Ballado mare Sacre Coeur, who had also produced Grade 3 winner Bizzy Caroline. From the start Lady Eli was incredibly feisty and independent. Even as a foal she was known as the dominant filly growing up on the rolling hills of Catesby Clay’s Runnymede Farm. Although independent and strong willed, she was easy to work with and serious, not flighty or green, she always meant business.
Lady Eli10.2-19-16.BL_As a 2 year old Lady Eli went directly into training for Chad Brown, one of the leading trainers in the industry. She impressed very early on. On August 25 2014 Lady Eli made her racing debut in a 1 1/16 Maiden Special Weight race at Saratoga. She won in a gutsy effort, pushing her way through horses when seemingly trapped in the stretch and getting to the wire just in time to get the win. Owner Hanley stated
“She was training up to her first race in Saratoga lights out, so we had very high hopes for her—even the layperson could watch her train and see she was training better than other horses there,” Hanley said. “When she finally got through in her debut, she did she showed her turn of foot and we saw in that last 100 yards what we were seeing in the morning.”
It was obvious she had class, and heart, and a turn of foot you didn’t want to mess with. From there they sent her directly into stakes company in the Grade 3 1 1/16 Miss Grillo stakes at Belmont Park. After her last start her connections were confident she was ready for the step up in class. They all were expecting another great performance, and she didn’t disappoint. She went on to win by 3 lengths under a hand ride from regular jock Irad Ortiz Jr. She broke eagerly, but settled into a striking position just behind te pacesetters. Set down five wide into the stretch, she uncoiled powerful strides releasing that explosive turn of foot to take charge from the others in the final furlong and won going away for trainer Chad Brown. She covered the 1 1/16 miles on firm turf 1:43.50. Despite the rather slow pace (:25.47, :51.48, and 1:15.86  through six furlongs) Lady Eli ran her final 2 1/2 furlongs in :27.64. Trainer Chad Brown stated
“Outstanding performance, she had trained like a horse with a ton of ability. …To start your career 2-for-2, as impressive as those races have been, is great. You can’t ask for more.”
Lady Eli’s connections were so impressed that they quickly decided if she continued her progress in training, they would send her directly into the 2014 Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies turf. Lady Eli would be Jay Hanley’s first Breeders Cup starter.
“Frankly it feels amazing, to have come this far so quickly,” Hanley stated. “It’s unbelievable. We’re just so excited and, if she’s actually able to run her race, we’re very hopeful,” he said.
Lady Eli trained perfectly heading up to the Breeders cup. Her trainer Chad Brown even had gone as far to stay he considers her of the best young fillies he’s ever trained. All one had to do is watch her two races, Lady Eli had acceleration that normally is only seen in Europeans. Brown stated
“She looks more like a 3-year-old colt than a 2-year-old filly.”
If any American could beat the heavily Euro populated field in the Juvenile Turf, it was her.
Come Breeders Cup day Lady Eli was the favorite and ran her race perfectly. She broke quickly, rated in fourth along the rail until the top of the lane and exploded past front-running Sunset Glow to win going away in a sharp 1:33.41 on a course rated firm. It was another superstar performance and upping her earnings to $719,800.
“I’m so proud of her to see her run like this today,” said Brown, who had three other fillies in the race.
“We develop these babies from scratch, and I remember the first time I saw her breeze on the turf. It took my breath away. I told her owners she was something special and she proved out to be. It all worked out.”
Jockey Irad Ortiz stated;
“My filly broke good and I got a nice spot down inside, I broke through the hole at the top of the stretch when Sunset Glow came out, and my filly flew right through there. It feels great. It’s unbelievable.”
It was her last juvenile start and all connections were thrilled with their filly. They knew they had a good horse on their hands and eagerly anticipated her 3 year old campaign.
Irad Ortiz Jr. giving treats to a special filly
Irad Ortiz Jr. giving treats to a special filly

Lady Eli received 5 months off following the Breeders’ Cup and spent her winter down in Florida. Brown gradually started to pick up her training at Palm Meadows, where she seemed to work better each week. She was ready to make her 3 year old debut in the 1 mile $125,000 Grade 3 Appalachian at Keeneland. Against a solid field, undefeated Lady Eli was the 2-5 favorite as the racing world eagerly anticipated her return. Lady Eli tracked early leader Sunset Glow, the same filly who led in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, before taking over in the stretch and cruising to a 2 1/2-length victory with Irad Ortiz Jr. once again in the irons. Lady Eli finished the mile in 1:35.80 on a turf course rated good. All were encouraged with Lady Eli’s return as a 3 year old, she looked just as good (if not better) than the year before. From there Brown had plans to send Lady Eli directly into the 1 ⅛ mile $200,000 Wonder Again Stakes May 31 at her home base at Belmont Park, and then head to the Grade 1 $1 million Belmont Oaks on July 4.

The Wonder Again Stakes would be used to stretch Lady Eli the longer 1 ⅛ mile distance, as both of her wins at Belmont the year before were at 1 1/16 miles. Brown said  “My feeling is she’s talented enough, has a good enough mind, and relaxes enough to handle the stretch-out, we’ll first try her at 1 1/8 miles, which she’s never done before, and see how she handles it. If she does, we’ll continue to point her to the Belmont Oaks.”Lady Eli broke sharply in the Wonder Again, but got Stuck on the inside through most of the race, Pine Needles set plodding fractions of :25.06, :51.10, and 1:15.95 through six furlongs, while Lady Eli sat in sixth, four lengths back. She was pinned behind horses at the quarter pole and into the stretch, but found room to the outside late, and rallied past dueling Heath and Pine Needles in the final seconds with a flourishing finish. Lady Eli hit the wire in 1:49.94 on a turf course rated firm. Despite the bad trip and anxious moments Lady Eli once again displayed incredible heart and will to win. Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. said.
“That filly is the kind of filly, when you ask her, she takes off no matter where she is. When she got in the clear, she took off. It was impressive.”

It was now on to the Grade 1 $1 million dollar Belmont Oaks, where Chad Brown looked to notch his second victory in as many editions, with 3 trainees, led by obvious favorite the still undefeated Lady Eli. The 1 1/4-mile turf event for 3-year-old fillies was part of Belmont’s second annual Stars & Stripes Day, which also features the $1.25 million dollar Belmont Derby Invitational and four other graded stakes races. The Oaks, is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” qualifier to the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, which was Lady Eli’s next target.  The Oaks would mark the toughest and longest test yet for Lady Eli, who was yet to race beyond 1 1/8 miles. Despite the new challenge, Lady Eli’s connections remained unconcerned. Come race day Lady Eli sparkled! She once again proved her dominance in the turf filly division winning easily. She bided her time midpack behind a hot pace, with the 1st quarter in :22.93 and a half in :47.23. Three-quarters went in 1:11.71 and then Lady Eli took over with a mile in 1:36.05. She exploded to the front turning for home and drew off in eye-catching fashion to win by 2 3/4 lengths with a final time of  time of 1:59.27 for 1 1/4 miles on firm turf. Trainer Chad Brown was thrilled “As we stretch out our turf horses, you wonder if they’re going to lose their turn of foot,” Brown said. “The term ‘breathes different air’ gets thrown around a lot when someone has a very good horse, and I’ve been lucky to have some great turf fillies and mares, but this one ‘breathes different air’ for sure. She certainly has the most devastating turn of foot I’ve ever worked around.”Lady Eli was on top of the world. She seemed to only get better. The future looked full of promising possibilities, with the Breeders Cup and an eventual Eclipse award knocking on the door, but nothing would prepare them for the blow that awaited them.

Irad and Lady Eli ready to get back to work "WINNING"
Irad and Lady Eli ready to get back to work “WINNING”

Following her victory in the Belmont Oaks, Lady Eli stepped on a nail with her left front foot walking back to Brown’s barn from the test barn. At first to Hanley it didn’t seem like a big deal. The nail was removed, but about a week later Lady Eli began showing “laminitic” changes in her right front foot, which she had been favoring. Afterwards, the left foot also began showing signs of “Laminitis”, a devastating hoof disease where the laminae of the hoof is inflamed and eventually leads to the deterioration of the whole hoof, often becoming untreatable. As of 2013 it is the 2nd leading cause of death in horses. The whole Lady Eli team and horse racing world was devastated.

“We’re in a wait and see situation,” said Hanley “It’s horrifying and disheartening. If you’re an optimist, you’d say she’ll race again. If you’re a pessimist, she could be battling for her life.I feel badly for all her fans and for Chad, who is very close to this horse, hopefully she can take her fighting spirit and put it into fighting this.” A visibly upset yet carefully optimistic Brown stated;  “Thankfully, we have assembled the best possible team of veterinarians and farriers to stabilize her and assist her through these difficult times. I ask that all of her fans keep this magnificent racehorse in their prayers and hopefully she will be back on the racetrack flashing her brilliance again.”

Lady Eli remained at Brown’s Belmont barn, where her care and treatments were being provided by podiatrists Dr. Bryan Fraley of Fraley Equine Podiatry, based at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute; and Dr. Robert Agne of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital.

From there the teams only concern was stabilizing Lady Eli and letting her rest and recover. “Laminitis” is known to make drastic changes, often for the worst and even after recovery horses are more susceptible to relapses. The only goal was to completely eliminate the disease and keep her comfortable. Thankfully, Lady Eli was a fantastic patient, she seemingly knew her predicament and took things all in stride. In less than a month after the initial diagnosis, Lady Eli was already making significant progress.
“She is doing really well considering what she’s gone through. She’s doing as well as she possibly could be at this point,” said Brown “She has excellent hoof growth and is moving comfortably,” said Brown.
“She gets out to graze for 30 minutes daily in my courtyard, and she’s really enjoying that. This can often be a long process, but we couldn’t be more pleased with her progress.” It was still too early to speculate if she could make a possible return to racing, but the hope was always in the back of Brown’s mind.
“We’re just taking it week to week,” said Brown. “We have a weekly list of goals for her to achieve and she has achieved them each week. She has the heart and determination of a champion, which we have seen in her races, and now we are seeing it again as she deals with this. She is a remarkable horse. She has a strong personality and attitude in that whatever she undertakes, she wins. And she is winning once again.”
By August 2015 Lady Eli had made remarkable progress and was given clearance to exercise, and was walking twice a day around the barn perfectly sound. Her weight and coat had drastically improved and even her eyes were brighter and more fierce than before. Her feisty attitude had also begun to return, months of rehab still remained, but most knew…Chad’s girl was coming back. Lady Eli remained at Brown’s Belmont barn until late September, when she was sent to rehab at the Justice family’s Dell Ridge Farm near Lexington. Des Ryan,  Dell Ridge manager, agreed that Lady Eli had not lost one bit of her attitude in recovery.
“She’s very dominant and lets you know who’s boss,” Ryan said. “She has a superiority about her. She’s a pleasure to be around, but at the same time she’s a strong-willed woman. All credit to Chad; we just followed up on what he’d been doing before she arrived. Dr. Fraley has been with her since the beginning. We gradually increased her turn-out time. She grazed and we pampered her. And now we’re proud of her leaving, and pretty much in regular shoes.We’re excited to get her back to Chad and follow her from here. It’s a sad story that now is turning back into hopefully a great story that will give us something to talk about.”
It was the talk of the backstretch when Lady Eli was first hit with the disease it hit Chad Brown even harder. Sleepless nights at the barn were reported and those close to him seemed worried he was taking it too hard. Not so, he loved his filly, knew how special she was, and was going to quarterback the team that would give her the best chance to beat this as possible. In July of this year Lady Eli was given clearance to return to the worktab. She had drilled four times at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, Fla. beginning at the end of February, before she developed mild tendinitis in one of her forelegs, causing them to take another step back in her training. Chad wanted her to be in perfect condition before they began talking of a possible race to target. Lady Eli made her first work at Palm Meadows in March, but in her first public work she went a half-mile on the inner turf course at Belmont Park July 3, about a year since her last race at the New York track. She covered four furlongs in a leisurely :52 1/5. Brown stated “It was a slow work—about :52 and change—but we just wanted to stretch her legs and see how she reacted. Next we we’ll start to pick it up with her. We’re being careful with her because we have a long way to go.” She continued to make progress and made her 3rd work at Belmont on July 10th. She worked a half-mile in :49 ⅖ and a week later on July 17 she recorded a time of :48.36. On July 24, Brown stepped her up to five furlongs on the turf and Lady Eli fired a bullet in 1:00.63, the fastest of six works at the distance that day. She was getting progressively better with each work
Now Lady Eli is stationed at Saratoga, where Chad Brown recently made the eagerly anticipated announcement that Lady Eli would target the Grade 2 Ballston Spa on Aug. 27th. The $400,000 Ballston Spa is a 1 1/16-mile turf event for 3-year-old and up fillies and mares. This tough filly has continued to amaze in her workouts and has never looked more ready to race. On August 13  Lady Eli turned in an ‘A+’ work over the turf course at Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track, covering five furlongs in 1:01 with an incredible gallop out, looking better than all the other horses on the track.
“She’s right on target. She doesn’t care for soft-ish ground but she still worked well. An ‘A+’ work.” Brown said “It’s remarkable what she’s accomplished but it’s not surprising, because it’s her,” Brown said. “Being around this horse all this time, since she was 2, I’ve learned her personality, how incredibly talented she is, how tough she is, physically and mentally.”
We have all come to love that feisty spirit, if Lady Eli wasn’t the way she was who knows if she would even be with us today. Lady Eli’s story is nothing short of amazing and inspiring. Attempted comebacks like this are rare, and for a still undefeated filly like Lady Eli to return to the races is amazing and exciting. This is a story of success, tragedy, love, spirit, and determination. Horses like Lady Eli are written about, movies made after, and stories told of for years after their careers, and we are privileged to be right in the center of it. As we eagerly await Aug. 27th, no matter what the outcome we will admire the mighty Lady Eli for her amazing spirit and will to win in all areas of her life.

By: Amy Nesse

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