08/25/2016 2:56PM

Lady Eli's long journey back

Barbara D. Livingston
Lady Eli makes her first start in over a year in the Ballston Spa Stakes.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Sol Kumin has two horses in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes, including the morning-line favorite, Exaggerator. But it’s the Grade 2 Ballston Spa, the race immediately after the Travers, that has him most excited.

“To me, this is the most important race of the year,” said Kumin, who along with Jay Hanley races as Sheep Pond Partners. “I don’t think I’ll ever own a horse that means more to us than her.”

The Ballston Spa marks the first race for Lady Eli – named for Kumin’s wife, Elizabeth – since July 4, 2015, when she won the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks, her sixth victory in as many career starts. It’s what happened shortly after that race and in the 13 months since that makes this start so important.

After going to the test barn at Belmont Park following the Oaks, Lady Eli was walked back to trainer Chad Brown’s barn. While she was walking the shed row to cool out, Brown noticed something was wrong.

“She walked into the shed row lame,” Brown said. “I thought she fractured something.”

It was later discovered that Lady Eli had a nail in her foot. After X-rays were taken that showed the nail did not do any significant damage, it was removed by a veterinarian. Brown thought the filly had dodged a bullet.

“We thought it was a minor thing,” Brown said.

Two days later, however, Brown was back at Saratoga when he received a phone call from his Belmont Park-based assistant, Cherie DeVaux, who said the filly wasn’t walking right.

“She was acting like she’s trying to founder on us,” Brown said. “We jumped on it, and from that point forward, every day we’ve been focused on bringing her back; first saving her, caring for her, helping her along, and now we’re all the way here.”

A plethora of veterinarians, led by Luis Castro, and podiatrists played a major role in helping Brown and his staff – DeVaux, Jorge Abreu, and Jose Hernandez – get Lady Eli back to where she can race again.

Bryan Fraley, a podiatrist from Lexington, Ky., was among those called in to assist with Lady Eli’s care. He and Bob Agne, of Rood and Riddle Equine in Saratoga, worked together for two months before Agne was tragically killed in a traffic accident in Vermont last Sept. 7.

Fraley said he first saw Lady Eli on July 13, 2015, and has seen her a total of 20 times over the last year.

Fraley said the first X-rays showed Lady Eli had a slight rotation in her feet. Fraley said he and Agne agreed to shoe her with a special shoe called an Ultimate Cuff that was bandaged onto her front feet. The shoe reduces the amount of tension on the digital flexor tendon.

Fraley and Agne met at Belmont Park once a week for a month to work on Lady Eli, graduating her from two more different shoes before she was able to leave Belmont Park on Sept. 21.

Lady Eli spent two months at Dell Ridge Farm in Lexington, where Fraley would visit her several times. Fraley, who credited farrier Wayne Thompson with the work he’s done on Lady Eli, said that on Nov. 26, he glued on regular race plates “with a little of an accentuated breakover” on Lady Eli’s front feet. She vanned to south Florida on Thanksgiving Day.

Lady Eli was based at Palm Meadows, where she walked and jogged for about two months before she started galloping. Brown said he knew after watching Lady Eli gallop for a few weeks that she would make it back.

“I was amazed how well she was moving after not training for so long ,” Brown said. “It’s easy to say now because she’s already there, but there was something about her, the way she was going around there, I knew she was going to make it back.”

Lady Eli worked three times at Palm Meadows from Feb. 29 to March 21 before she was diagnosed with tendonitis.

“One of her tendons was very thick, which was new to me,” Brown said. “I had never seen that with her, and I was quite worried that she damaged it.”

Thankfully, there was only inflammation and no tendon damage. After being taken out of training for several weeks, Lady Eli shipped to New York.

Lady Eli returned to the work tab at Belmont Park on July 3 and has worked weekly since. Her last four works have been over the Oklahoma turf course at Saratoga, working with the likes of Sea Calisi, the Grade 1 Beverly D. winner, and Mrs McDougal, another stakes horse. Lady Eli has looked sensational in these breezes.

“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure for us as a team to make sure she is 100 percent and to try our best to keep her record intact, to make the right calls,” Brown said. “But I think you get to a point where you have to believe what you see. What I see is this filly training like she was going into the Belmont Oaks.

“I think not only do we owe it to her fans, I think we owe it to the horse to allow her to run,” Brown added. “She wants to run. I can see it in her eye, I can see it in her demeanor. This filly has a lot of run in her, I believe. So competitive is this horse, we’d be doing a disservice to leave her in the barn. She wants to get out there and mix it up with other horses.”

Fraley is coming in from Lexington with his wife. Carrie Agne, Bob Agne’s widow, who still works at Rood and Riddle near Saratoga, is also expected to attend Saturday’s races.

“This is going to be so exciting,” Fraley said. “I’m so happy for the owners and the trainers. It’s going to be fantastic.”