04/13/2017 1:46PM

Lady Eli ready to fire off bench in Jenny Wiley

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Barbara D. Livingston
Lady Eli will be making her first start since finishing second by a nose in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The next chapter in the storybook career of Lady Eli will get its first few paragraphs written Saturday, when the superstar turf mare makes her 5-year-old debut in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland.

Lady Eli has been among the most admired Thoroughbreds in North America in the last couple of years, not only because of her sensational race record but also for the courage she displayed in averting the perils of the deadly equine disease laminitis.

“She’s accomplished a lot and overcome a lot,” said Chad Brown, who trains Lady Eli, a winner in seven of nine career starts and an earner of more than $2.1 million for Sheep Pond Partners.

Lady Eli, with Irad Ortiz Jr. in to ride, will be a solid favorite when she breaks from the rail post in a field of eight fillies and mares in the 29th running of the 1 1/16-mile Jenny Wiley, the last of four straight stakes on another outstanding Saturday card at Keeneland. First post is 1:05 p.m. Eastern, with the Jenny Wiley (race 10) set for 6:12.

To great fanfare, Lady Eli returned from a layoff of nearly 14 months last August at Saratoga. She had stepped on a nail in the summer of 2015 and then was found to be in the early stages of laminitis. Nursed back to health, she showed excellent form in an abbreviated 4-year-old campaign, sandwiching narrow defeats in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa and Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf around a rousing victory in the Grade 1 Flower Bowl.

Regrouped by Brown over the winter in Florida, Lady Eli was being considered for either the Jenny Wiley or the May 13 Beaugay at Belmont Park. Brown liked what he saw, and the Jenny Wiley became the target.

“She’s never been bigger or stronger than right now,” said Brown. “Her works have been amazing. I have what I think is the best turf mare in the country, so I have to allow her to run.”

Even without Lady Eli, this renewal of the Jenny Wiley would seem to merit its Grade 1 ranking. The opposition includes Time and Motion (post 6, John Velazquez), the winner of the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup here last fall; Dickinson (post 4, Paco Lopez), a winner of back-to-back graded turf stakes in Florida over the winter; and Catch a Glimpse (post 3, Florent Geroux), the speedy filly who won the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf over this course amid an eight-race win streak.

The rest of the lineup comprises Goodyearforroses (post 2, Corey Nakatani), Kitten’s Roar (post 5, Joel Rosario), Illuminant (post 7, Flavien Prat), and Quidura (post 8, Junior Alvarado).

Illuminant is trained by Michael McCarthy, who spent much of his 11-plus years as a top assistant to Todd Pletcher at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. McCarthy, solo since 2014, now is based in his home state of California, where Illuminant has won five times, including the Grade 1 Gamely last May at Santa Anita.

“It’s nice to be back in my old territory,” said McCarthy. “We happened to pick a really tough spot – this might be the deepest Grade 1 of the year so far. But our mare is doing really well. I couldn’t have brought her here in any better physical condition.”

The Jenny Wiley, first run in 1989, caps an all-stakes pick-four wager that also includes the Ben Ali (race 7), Giant’s Causeway (race 8), and Lexington (race 9).

Mostly sunny skies and a high of 81 are in the forecast for Saturday, when another ontrack crowd exceeding 30,000 can be expected.

Keeneland will be dark Sunday because of the Easter holiday, with action resuming Wednesday.

KEY CONTENDERS

Lady Eli, by Divine Park

Last 3 Beyers: 104-102-101

◗ She’s been superior in most every way since her first start in 2014, and her handy style and inside post should have her in a prime spot when the real running begins.

Time and Motion, by Tapit

Last 3 Beyers: 93-100-97

◗ Her victory in a three-filly photo last fall in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup for her Darby Dan Farm connections was her fifth of the season and stamped her as a genuine standout in her class.

Dickinson, by Medaglia d’Oro

Last 3 Beyers: 99-99-97

◗ Godolphin homebred has hit her peak in recent months, with victories in the Grade 3 Suwannee River and Grade 2 Hillsborough making her 4 for her last 5.

Catch a Glimpse, by City Zip

Last 3 Beyers: 90-93-81

◗ She’s the obvious speed in here, and after something of a slump at the end of her 3-year-old season, she could prove a danger out front following a freshening.

Illuminant, by Quality Road

Last 3 Beyers: 99-100-94

◗ She has raced once this year, winning the Wishing Well at Santa Anita. McCarthy said he would have preferred two preps for her “in a perfect world,” but he is otherwise extremely satisfied with how this Pennsylvania-bred has trained toward this.

– additional reporting by Nicole Russo