SARATOGA SPRINGS — Start, stop, start.
Just before the gates were supposed to open for Saturday’s Grade I Diana at Saratoga, Antonoe took it upon herself to push through her gate doors from post position 2 and proceeded to jog down the Mellon Turf Course.
Her stablemate in the next stall to the outside, Lady Eli, figured this was it, too, racetime, and busted through her doors, only to be pulled up immediately by jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.
After the horses were reloaded, Lady Eli polished off a sparkling performance in a race that served as a microcosm of her career.
A star in the making three years ago, she was on the shelf for almost 14 months because of the hoof disease laminitis, then started her career all over again last year at Saratoga.
On Saturday, she powered down the middle of the stretch and outfinished front-runner Quidura by a short nose to win the Diana, the fifth Grade I victory of a career that represents one of the great resurrection stories of the sport.
With the Diana win, trainer Chad Brown’s third in the last seven runnings, Lady Eli has won nine of 12 career starts for Sheep Pond Partners and has lost by a combined one length in her other three races, all second-place finishes.
“Considering everything, today I think she proved she’s one of the all-time greats,” Brown said. “Just such a special win. This is where it all got started, when she won her maiden race by a nose, and to come back as a 5-year-old and win one of the most prestigious races for fillies and mares on the turf in the country, if not the world, is just a real special feeling and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving horse.”
Lady Eli broke her maiden by a nose here on Aug. 25, 2014, and was a Breeders’ Cup winner two races later to close out her 2-year-old season.
At 3, she improved to 6-0 lifetime before coming down with laminitis, which is often fatal. Around the barns, it’s a word that is spoken with a grim shudder.
Brown and his staff painstakingly brought her thhrough the recovery process, though, and were able to get her back into a training routine, taking baby steps all the way until they were confident she had regained her previous form.
In her first race back, the Ballston Spa at Saratoga on Aug. 27 last year, she led in deep stretch but was caught late by Strike Charmer.
She lost the Jenny Wiley by a head to Dickinson to start this season, but got back to winning form in the Gamely in May.
On Saturday, her race was nearly over before it officially started, but Ortiz calmly walked her back around to the back of the starting gate as Antonoe was walked back.
“I wasn’t feeling well,” said Brown, who also trains Antonoe. “It’s never a good sign. You could probably walk through the grandstand here and talk to the people that actually wager their money every day, and they’ll tell you that most of the time that happens, they don’t win. But she just overcame so much, breaking through the gate, and the horse she ran down is a quality horse, and giving her eight pounds, she still wore her down after all that.
Lady Eli and Ortiz settled behind a group of four led by Quidura and jockey Junior Alvarado, and Ortiz got her to the outside on the backstretch before starting a gradual move toward the front on the second turn.
By the time they straightened out at the top of the stretch, Lady Eli unleashed a powerful move on the outside. Quidura gamely dug in, with Antonoe and Javier Castellano between her and the inside hedge, and those three horses ran in tandem toward the wire before Antonoe lost some momentum in tight quarters a few strides before the wire.
As close as the finish was, Lady Eli clearly had a nose in front, prompting track announcer Larry Collmus to describe her as “the DAUNTLESS Lady Eli.”
“Mike Smith told me once, a good horse gives you good pressure,” Ortiz said. “She gives me the confidence. I had a lot of patience and waited until I felt like I was going to get there, and then I didn’t hesitate. I just showed her the whip, I never hit her. I rode her with confidence.”
“Just her determination,” Brown said. “I’m proud that she didn’t hang there at the end. She always drove past other horses as long as she can see them. It could probably be argued that she might’ve been undefeated except, the three times she got beat, it’s late in the stretch from behind.
“It doesn’t surprise me. But I am left in amazement how fortunate we are that this horse landed in our barn.”
On a day in which the Ortiz brothers, Irad and Jose, won seven of the 11 races on the card, it was Irad who had the edge, winning four total but more importantly sweeping the two stakes, the Diana and the Grade III Sanford for 2-year-olds.
He rode Firenze Fire, at 12-1 the second-longest shot on the board, to a one-length victory over the slight favorite Free Drop Billy in the Sanford.
“He did everything right,” Ortiz said. “I threw the reins at him, and he really liked it. He really was there for me. He looked like a really nice horse.”
“The horse has always been very classy, but when he won the first time, I was a little surprised,” ttrainer Jason Servis said. “We thought this is where we’ve got to take a shot, and it all worked out.”