by Karen M. Johnson
Making her second start after more than a year away from the races, Lady Eli returned to the winner's circle in the Grade 1, $500,000 Flower Bowl on Super Saturday at Belmont Park.
The 4-year-old filly, who is owned by Sheep Pond Partners, was greeted with hearty applause following her three-quarter-length win over pacesetter Sentiero Italia in the 1 1/4-mile turf race. It was Lady Eli's first victory since capturing the Belmont Oaks Invitational in July 2015 at Belmont Park.
Lady Eli, ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr., is trained by Chad Brown, who has now won four of the last six runnings of the Flower Bowl, a "Win and You're In" designated race for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Santa Anita Park on November 5.
Racing as the 4-5 favorite in the six-horse field of fillies and mares, Lady Eli was positioned in a sweet spot by Ortiz from the outset. As Sentiero Italia took the early lead, while being tracked by Itsonlyactingdad, Lady Eli was poised on the outside in third.
Sentiero Italia carved out fractions of 23.99, 49.03, 1:13.73, and 1:37.03 over the firm course. With a quarter-mile remaining, Ortiz was still motionless on Lady Eli. When roused, Lady Eli bore down upon Sentiero Italia and came away with the lead in the final sixteenth.
"I got a good trip," Ortiz said. "We broke out of there and Senterio Italia had some speed so we sat right off of them. Then Pletcher's filly [Itsonlyactingdad, No. 3] showed some speed today, so we sat and I tried to wait as long as I could. I could have saved a little more ground but that's the way the trip was coming out and it worked out good for us. She was ready today."
Lady Eli, who contracted laminitis after winning last year's Belmont Oaks Invitational, returned to the races in the Grade 2 Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa at Saratoga Race Courseon August 27 and finished a gutsy second.
Brown, who saddled Lady Eli to win the 2014 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Santa Anita, said with the way Lady Eli trained for both the Ballston Spa and Flower Bowl, he knew she would be capable of returning to her previous form.
"I wasn't concerned that was she wasn't going to be the same, based on her training," Brown said. "To my eye watching her train before the Ballston Spa and the Flower Bowl, this filly has been training as good as ever."
Brown expressed confidence as he looks ahead to the Breeders' Cup with Lady Eli.
"It'll be her third race off the layoff, she has a mile-and-a-quarter race under her belt now," he said. "She has a very good chance of getting the firm turf that she loves out at Santa Anita. She has a win out there already, although they have a new turf course, but I'm sure it's similar. If anything else, she's comfortable with the environment and shipping out there, so I'm excited to bring her into the Breeders' Cup.
"There were a lot of different scenarios, some extremely scary, and the best case was we'd be back heading to the Breeders' Cup race as one of the favorites, and here we are," Brown added. "It couldn't happen to a more deserving horse, for her to overcome all this."
Lady Eli, a daughter of Divine Park, returned $3.70 for a $2 win bet. The final time was 1:59.85. With her win in the Flower Bowl, Lady Eli's record stands at 7-1-0 in eight starts. She has earned $1,829,800.
Rounding out the order of finish was Sea Calisi, Strike Charmer, Itsonlyactingdad, and Ame Bleue.