Thirteen months after her last start, Sheep Pond Partners' undefeated Lady Eli will look to make a triumphant return in Saturday's Grade 2, $400,000 Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa for fillies and mares 3-years-old and up on the turf at Saratoga Race Course on Travers Day.
Trainer Chad Brown saw Lady Eli, who is 6-for-6 in her career with four graded stakes victories, explode on the scene with wins in the Grade 3 Miss Grillo at Belmont Park followed by a Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf win to cap her 2-year-old season. Her 3-year-old campaign in 2015 was just as impressive, culminating with a win in the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks Invitational on July 4, 2015.
But after long layoff to recover from laminitis contracted after that Belmont Oaks performance, Lady Eli has gradually worked her way back in, having breezed six times on the turf since July 3. The last of her four works on the Oklahoma turf came Saturday, when the dark bay filly breezed five furlongs in 1:01.06.
“It's a big deal,” Brown said. “She's been a long way back and I think she's training outstanding right now. I'm really excited to get her back out there racing again. She is, too. This filly is so competitive. I can just see that she wants to run and I'm letting her run.”
Lady Eli has registered Beyer Speed Figures of 90-or-better in her last four starts, which have all come against stakes company. Irad Ortiz, Jr., who has been on the saddle for all six of her wins, will again have the call from post 3.
“She has a strong string of workouts and I think she's fit enough, but we'll see Saturday,” said Brown, who has won the Ballston Spa twice, with Dacita last year and Zagora in 2012. “She's such a talent and she's shown no ill effects.”
Jay Henley, who is one of two managing partners of Sheep Pond along with Sol Kumin, will be in attendance on Saturday. The 44-year-old Henley, whose partnership has won seven of the 13 total starts thanks mostly to Lady Eli's unblemished record, said it'll be an emotional experience when she steps into the starting gate for the 28th running of the Ballston Spa.
“It's a mix of emotions; I feel that excitement, adrenaline, energy and fear,” Henley said. “The fear is for all my horses to just make sure they stay well. It's kind of like watching your child go off to kindergarten for the first time. We've been here before and she's been great. But this is the first time she's been back off the injury.
“She's showed resiliency, competitiveness and just that determination not to lose in all her races,” Henley said. “In her maiden race and also in the Wonder Again, which was her fifth race, she showed me something that most horses just don't have. All the other races, she was uber-explosive, but in those two races, she had to force her own way to the front and she did it. To see her come back from what's come back and to see all the fans on Saturday, I'll consider myself lucky to be able to watch this race.”
Brown also has a possible pacemaker in the field with Sympathy. The 4-year-old will make her graded stakes debut out of post 4 in tandem with jockey Aaron Gryder.
Godolphin Racing's Sentiero Italia will return to graded stakes company after an allowance win on July 22.
Sentiero Italia has a pair of Grade 2 wins on her resume, including the Sands Point and the 2015 Lake Placid at the Spa. She registered career-high Beyer Speed Figures of 103 and 100, respectively, in those races and will leave from post 5 with Joel Rosario aboard.
“She came back with a nice win off a long layoff, so we're ready to go,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “The issue for everyone else in the race is that Lady Eli will be in the gate. It's good for racing that she's back. We're just hoping to catch her. But we're doing great.
“She's probably going to lay close. If there's a rabbit in the race, we'd be laying second, third or fourth and hope we get the jump on Lady Eli,” he added.
Coming off two straight Grade 1 starts, Courtlandt Farms' Strike Charmer will try to find her way back to the winner's circle for the first time since the Grade 3 Beaugay on May 14 at Belmont Park. Strike Charmer, who rallied from eighth to finish fifth last out in the Grade 1 Diana on July 23 in her first start with jockey Junior Alvarado, will exit post 6.
“She's run well here in Saratoga in the past and Junior said if he had ridden her before, he would have changed a couple of things,” trainer Mark Hennig said. “We're trying to make up some distance with that. You just need a good trip and the drop to Grade 2 should help, but Lady Eli is a formidable foe.”
Breaking from the outside is The Club Racing's Miss Temple City, who beat colts in winning the Grade 1 Maker's 46 Mile on April 15 at Keeneland while carrying 113 pounds. She next ran in the Group 2 Duke of Cambridge on June 15, finishing fourth, and also came in fourth in her return to the United States in the Diana.
Trained by Graham Motion, Miss Temple City will again have the services of jockey Drayden Van Dyke.
Onus, trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, goes in search of her first stakes win since the 2015 Grade 3 Commonwealth. A gray daughter of Blame, Onus will break from post 7 with Jose Ortiz.
Beginning from the rail is Swift Thoroughbreds Sweet Acclaim. The Brad Cox-trained 5-year-old bay mare will be ridden by Florent Geroux.
Excilly will make her second career United States start after a seventh-place finish in the Fasig-Tipton De La Rose on August 6. The English-bred 4-year-old, trained by Thomas Dascombe, will depart post 2 with Luis Saez on the saddle.
The Ballston Spa is named for the village located to the southwest of Saratoga Springs. The turf race for fillies and mares was inaugurated in 1989 as the Aqueduct Breeders' Cup, where it was held until moved to Saratoga in 1994 as the Saratoga Breeders' Cup. The race's named was changed to its current iteration in 1997.
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