05/25/2017 12:56PM

Hovdey: Gamely suits Lady Eli in name and prestige

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Those ancient souls who have seen way too many runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup – now called the Gold Cup at Santa Anita – will squeeze their eyes shut tight and pretend that Saturday’s version of the 1 1/4-mile event fits neatly into a history that includes Round Table, Swaps, Cigar, Citation, Native Diver, Ack Ack, and Affirmed. I count myself among the dreamers.

In fact, the field assembled around heavily favored Midnight Storm is a respectable bunch, most of them graded stakes winners but none of them known far beyond their immediate family and friends.

Cupid and American Freedom, both trained by Bob Baffert, won the derbies of Iowa, Indiana, and West Virginia last year, which has to count for something.

Hard Aces actually won this race two years ago and was third in 2016, which does not seem to impress his younger, very talented stablemate, Accelerate. They both will carry the hopes of the Hronis brothers and trainer John Sadler.

The rest include Big John B and Texas Ryano, totaling 14 years between them, who have done their best work on grass; Follow Me Crev, an honest citizen from the same owner-trainer nick that produced 2000 Gold Cup shocker Early Pioneer; and Prime Attraction, an allowance winner who could not be found at the end of the recent Californian Stakes.

All this plus a $500,000 purse, and not a whisper of interest from the East, where the viable older runners cherry pick their way among springtime races like the Pimlico Special, the Stephen Foster, and the Suburban.

Not even Chad Brown, the newly christened “dirt trainer” in the wake of Cloud Computing’s victory in the Preakness, could find a viable animal to send after the low-hanging Gold Cup fruit. But at least he did the next-best thing – he shipped out the best horse he’s ever trained.

“Ever” for Brown dates all the way back to 2007, when he left the nest of mentor Bobby Frankel to go out on his own. Even accomplished horsemen of more senior service would be hard pressed to name a Thoroughbred they’ve handled who is more courageous than Lady Eli.

The daughter of Divine Park is a 5-year-old mare now, though seemingly she has been in the game’s consciousness forever. The brilliant fireworks of her first six races, all of them wins, included the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and the Belmont Oaks Invitational. She was troubled in neither event by the best fields a million-dollar purse could assemble.

Then came Lady Eli’s terrifying battle with founder, a disease that is neither fully understood or effectively controlled by the best brains of the veterinary community. Somehow, Lady Eli came through the other side and, to everyone’s amazement, became a world-class racehorse again.

Understandably, Brown has been deliberate in producing Lady Eli in public. It took the trainer a long time to stop walking on eggshells in her post-founder handling. Now, after three races last year and just a single start this season, she is on the scene at Santa Anita for the Grade 1 Gamely at nine furlongs on firm turf.

Of Lady Eli’s 10 lifetime starts – seven wins and three close seconds – two of the best have come at Santa Anita. In addition to the 2014 Breeders’ Cup race, she ran lights-out last fall in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf only to be edged on the line by Queen’s Trust. In her lone 2017 race, she was similarly caught in the final strides by Dickinson at Keeneland in the Jenny Wiley Stakes.

“I don’t think she’s lost a step,” Brown said. “It may be that we have to ride her a little bit differently now, wait a touch longer before she surges to the lead. But it’s not an easy thing to do for a jockey.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. has ridden Lady Eli in all 10 starts and will be back aboard for the Gamely. Their primary challenge comes from Avenge, who is making her first appearance for Richard Mandella since finishing third, beaten a length, in the BC Filly and Mare Turf last November. That day, Ortiz had to go after the front-running Avenge deep in the stretch, and Lady Eli might have considered the job done.

“You can’t afford to do that with the kind of horses she’s running against,” Brown said. “You’ve got to finish the race all the way to the wire.”

If Lady Eli has become a thinker, she comes by it honestly. Divine Park is by Chester House, the Arlington Million winner and son of the grand producer and world-class head case Toussaud, who would lie awake nights devising ways to make life miserable for the people in her life. Trained by Frankel – when Brown was still in high school – Toussaud also beat males in the American Handicap and set a stakes record while winning the 1993 Gamely at Hollywood Park.

Now comes Toussaud’s great-granddaughter, looking to add another Gamely win to the family tree.

“I feel like she’s run a winning race every time, which is very rare,” Brown said. “So reliable, so talented, beyond the fact that she survived a life-threatening illness.”

When she was in California last fall, Lady Eli was one of many stars decorating the Breeders’ Cup pageant, during which there is never enough time to appreciate them all. On Saturday, local fans will be able to give her the attention she deserves.