Lady Eli foiled in Ballston Spa – by Strike Charmer, and by tactics?

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

August 28th, 2016

In advance of Saturday’s $400,000 Ballston Spa (G2) at Saratoga, I kept trying to tamp down my own expectations about Lady Eli’s comeback. Just getting here was a moral victory in itself, after a near-fatal attack of laminitis last summer. Surely it would be unfair to expect her to retain her perfect record off a nearly 14-month layoff, in a spot like this, against her old foes Miss Temple City and Sentiero Italia.

But as the day approached, I started to think maybe Lady Eli could pull it off. When the 4-5 favorite smoothly covered Sentiero Italia’s move on Miss Temple City rounding the far turn, I held my breath in anticipation. Would we see her cut loose in her grand style and leave them standing?

Lady Eli couldn’t summon that knockout blow after all, but she compensated by a sheer force of will – and that was almost enough. Valiantly imposing her will on Sentiero Italia and Miss Temple City down the stretch, the Chad Brown star fought her way forward.

Then along came Strike Charmer, a 27-1 shot, wider out to deny Lady Eli in the final strides of the 1 1/16-mile test. But Strike Charmer had to produce a new stakes record of 1:38.77 to pass her, and just missed Ironicus’ course record of 1:38.54 on the firm Mellon turf.

Lady Eli lost nothing in defeat, especially when you take a closer look at pre-ordained tactics that backfired.

Courtlandt Farm’s homebred Strike Charmer was overlooked as an alternative to Lady Eli, likely because Miss Temple City and Sentiero Italia brandished more attractive credentials. Also, Strike Charmer is a closer dependent on a fast pace. On paper, there wasn’t much pace on tap, with Onus the one likeliest to go forward and try to nick it.

Except for one not-so-trivial detail (which I hadn’t noticed beforehand): Lady Eli’s stablemate, Sympathy, was no longer owned by Highclere America. Sympathy had been recruited by Lady Eli’s owners, Sheep Pond Partners. And she picked up a new rider in Aaron Gryder, who was also handed the assignment on Flintshire’s rabbit, Inordinate, in the Sword Dancer Invitational (G1) earlier on the card.

Those signs pointed to Sympathy being used as a pacemaker as well. But in the circumstances, I’m not quite sure why the services of a pacemaker were required.

Lady Eli has never been pace-dependent. Her turn of foot is so exceptional that she can beat you for finishing speed, no matter how slow you go early.

And if her old brilliance couldn’t be relied upon in her first start back, the answer isn’t to add a rabbit. It’s not advisable to ratchet up the pace, and turn her comeback – a Grade 2 on Travers Day at Saratoga – into a much more strongly run affair.

On the contrary, I would have thought that a softly run race that turns into a sprint would have been welcome. If she sparkles as before, she wins. If she doesn’t, she still has a useful comeback, without having too hard a race.

By blazing ahead through fractions of :22.43 and :45.55, Sympathy injected an unreasonable amount of pace. Perhaps that wasn’t quite the script. But why pitch her in there anyway, and what would have been wrong with letting the race unfold organically?

Miss Temple City launched an early move and took over from the spent pacemaker at the three-quarter mark in 1:09.16. That proved unsustainable too, and she paid for it by tiring in the lane.

Sentiero Italia was the next to play her hand. Lady Eli, who had been traveling comfortably off the pace, followed her turning for home and spun out wide. Onus made a nifty bid about the same time on the inside, but Lady Eli, despite her ground loss, was still moving better. Although Lady Eli poked her head in front in midstretch, the mile split of 1:32.81 was punishing.

Strike Charmer, however, had been content to trail the field as the frenetic pace – and the tactical maneuvers on the far turn – played out. With jockey Junior Alvarado taking the gift set-up, the Mark Hennig mare swooped fast and late to prevail by three-quarters of a length.

Lady Eli was a half-length up on Sentiero Italia, with Onus another length back in fourth. Miss Temple City, who was squeezed between foes in the final yards, checked in fifth. There was a six-length gap to Excilly, who’d chased the rabbit early, and Sympathy was tailed off.

Strike Charmer, who dominated the May 14 Beaugay (G3) off a strong pace at Belmont, was subsequently eighth in the Just a Game (G1) and a close fifth in the Diana (G1). The six-year-old daughter of Smart Strike has compiled a record of 21-6-4-3, $632,850.

Quotes from Saratoga 

Mark Hennig, winning trainer of Strike Charmer: “I didn't know they'd go that fast early but we were where we needed to be with the pace being that way. When Junior (Alvarado) got off of her last time he told me, ‘If I get her outside, she really wants to punch.’ He said she was making up ground last time and she really wasn't even fully extending herself. He felt like having learned something from riding her once, it would be wise to just kind of sit.

“We talked in the paddock after watching the Flintshire race and I told him, ‘Don't get stuck behind that rabbit because everybody's going to be lined up at the quarter pole thinking they're coming off the rail.’ Lady Eli took the overland route and I thought he did a great job of just kind of hiding out behind her and then trying to pounce. We were fortunate enough to run her down today.

On beating Lady Eli: “It's an amazing story that she's come back from what she had. Anytime that happens with a horse we all feel it in the industry, when one of our best horses suffers something like that. When horses founder it's such a struggle and it's a great story that she did make it back, but we don't mind raining on her parade today."

Winning rider Junior Alvarado: “I knew they were going pretty quick. I could feel the pace going fast in front of me. I saved as much horse as I could for the end but as soon as I turned from home, I saw the favorites just right there, still in front of me, and I still really hadn't gotten into my filly. I said, OK, we've got a good chance right now, just make sure to put her on the outside. She gave me a nice run at the end.”

Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. on runner-up Lady Eli: “She came off a year layoff, an injury. I'm just glad she made the race and came out great. She felt good. She probably needed the race.”

Trainer Chad Brown on runner-up Lady Eli: “She ran very well. I'm a little disappointed she got beat but I'm happy that she's back to the races. It looked like she just got a little tired that last part. She made a big move there on the turn under a wicked pace and it just took a little too much out of her.”

“(Ortiz Jr.) said he got her off the fence down the backside so they wouldn't trap her. He gave her a little bit of a wide trip but really didn't want to get in trouble with this filly. He said he moved into a pretty strong pace. He didn't want the two other horses in the race, Sentiero Italia and Miss Temple City, to get too far away from him so he moved up on them and felt he had them all measured. He just didn't imagine that horse coming from the back and getting him. That's the way it worked out. We'll build off this race.”

Photo courtesy NYRA/Coglianese Photography