'Nervous horse owner' Hanley 'really, really, really happy' after Lady Eli's Flower Bowl win

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TwinSpires Staff

October 8th, 2016

Story & Photo by Teresa Genaro

For a man whose volubility makes him a terrific interview, Jay Hanley was curiously silent as he stood near the winner’s circle at Belmont Park on Saturday afternoon. Minutes earlier, his Lady Eli had won the Grade 1, $500,000 Flower Bowl, her second race and first win since she was injured after the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks Invitational in July of 2015.

Searching for words, he said, “I don’t know if…vindicated? is the right word?”

Then, a smile beginning to creep across his face, he said, “’Relaxed’ is definitely not the right word.”

Under Irad Ortiz Jr., the dark bay filly raced outside in third for most of the 10 furlongs, and then inside the eighth-pole, under urging, she made steady, if not spectacular, progress on the leader, Sentiero Italia. Ortiz had to encourage her, but she prevailed as the odds-on favorite, winning by three-quarters of a length.

“I’m somewhere,” said Hanley, “between less nervous than I was (before the race) and really, really, really happy.”

A self-described “nervous horse owner,” Hanley can’t simply enjoy Lady Eli’s races anymore, not after the last year. After stepping on a nail on the way back to her barn after the Belmont Oaks, the filly developed laminitis and was nursed back to health, returning to training in Florida this past winter.

“I feel like we’re always just one crazy weird mishap away from her being taking from us,” he said, then allowed, “I feel true happiness for perhaps the first time in a long time with her. It’s been this grinding feeling that she’s better than all the horses out there -- this feeling that I know she is, but she can’t do it because she’s injured and maybe never coming back.”

“With her,” said Sol Kumin, Hanley’s ownership partner in Sheep Pond Partners, “I can’t sleep the night before the race. Everything that she’s been through, and she’s the one that really got us here. We were two guys that knew nothing, and we found a horse that we went on a journey with. It changes your life a little bit.”

“There’s this feeling of wow…and I know she’s good,” said Hanley. “And the hope is that everybody else could see that.”

They saw it on Saturday afternoon on Belmont Park, when she won a Grade 1 in a race against graded stakes winners, including Strike Charmer, the filly that beat her in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa in her comeback race in August at Saratoga, and Sea Calisi, her stablemate that won the Grade 1 Beverly D at Arlington. She was cheered, long and loud, as she returned to the winner’s circle.

With the Flower Bowl win, Lady Eli has earned a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, a race she missed last year when she was hurt. In 2015, Sol Kumin, Hanley’s partner in Sheep Pond Partners, won a Breeders’ Cup race with other partners when Wavell Avenue won the Filly & Mare Sprint. Now Kumin and Hanley plan to return to the Breeders' Cup together with Lady Eli, winner of the 2014 Juvenile Fillies Turf.

If she comes back well, she’ll head to Santa Anita, with two owners who might need a little yoga or meditation -- or maybe something stronger -- to get through the experience of watching her run against the best of her division, of seeing her come back from a life-threatening injury to compete at the sport’s highest level.

“She could surprise people again,” said Kumin. “I think she’s just coming back to where we want her to be, so I think we’ll have a shot.”