01/06/2017 11:10AM

2016 Eclipse Awards: Lady Eli

Barbara D. Livingston

Go ahead, admit it: You rooted for Lady Eli at every chance in 2016.

When trainer Chad Brown said the filly was back in training after a frightening bout with laminitis in 2015, the reaction was one of relief – and delight. Lady Eli was undefeated in six starts at ages 2 and 3, and the prospect of her adding to those achievements as a 4-year-old in 2016 gave the distance female turf division a star.

Lady Eli did not disappoint. Yes, she lost more than she won in 2016, but she was never beaten by much and lost by only a nose in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita on Nov. 5. In three starts, Lady Eli was so outstanding that she has been honored as a finalist for the Eclipse Award in the female turf category.

Lady Eli’s fan base never wavered. When Lady Eli made her first start of the year in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa Stakes at Saratoga on the undercard of the Travers Stakes on Aug. 27, she was 9-10 in a field of seven. Ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., Lady Eli closed from fifth to lead in the stretch, only to be caught in the final strides by Strike Charmer, losing by three-quarters of a length.

:: Eclipse Awards: 2016 finalists with profiles

The unbeaten record was gone, but the determination clearly remained. The Ballston Spa was her first start in 14 months. Lady Eli was back.

Six weeks later, Lady Eli was again favored in the Grade 1 Flower Bowl Invitational at Belmont Park on Oct. 8. This time, Lady Eli led at the wire, prevailing by three-quarters of a length over Sentiero Italia. The Flower Bowl was her sixth stakes win and her third in a Grade 1. The win added to a brilliant résumé for a filly purchased for $140,000 at the Keeneland sale of 2-year-olds in training in 2014.

Brown had seen clues of Lady Eli’s comeback in the preceding months. Lady Eli’s performances at Saratoga and in the Flower Bowl confirmed that her 2015 setbacks were history, leaving a sense of relief.

“To my eye, watching her train before the Ballston Spa and the Flower Bowl, this filly has been training as good as ever,” he said in the winner’s circle after the Flower Bowl.

“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,” he said. “It couldn’t happen to a more deserving horse, for her to overcome all this.”

Santa Anita was the location of Lady Eli’s first Grade 1 win, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf in 2014, and she was favored to win the Filly and Mare Turf on Nov. 5 against 12 rivals from throughout the United States and Europe.

Lady Eli ran arguably the best race of her career. Closing from 10th, Lady Eli was second with a furlong to go and took the lead in the final sixteenth. Lady Eli looked like a winner until the British invader Queen’s Trust rallied wide to take the lead right on the wire, winning by a nose.

Lady Eli’s comeback did not have the storybook finish at the Breeders’ Cup for owner Sheep Pond Partners. Instead, the owners, Brown, and Lady Eli’s admirers took comfort that she had returned at the highest level of racing. A year earlier, there was concern about her general well-being. Now, thoughts turned to getting the popular filly to the winner’s circle in some of the world’s top races.

Lady Eli will race in 2017.