11/02/2017 10:26AM

Win or lose, Lady Eli will leave lasting impression

Barbara D. Livingston
Cherie DeVaux (left), trainer Chad Brown's Belmont assistant, and Baldo Hernandez with Lady Eli at Del Mar on Wednesday.

DEL MAR, Calif. – On the morning of Oct. 27, Cherie DeVaux, atop her stable pony, accompanied Lady Eli and exercise rider Walter Melasquez to the training track at Belmont Park. After standing by the quarter pole gap for several moments, DeVaux jogged alongside Lady Eli before turning her and Melasquez loose for one last gallop.

Lady Eli would have a workout the following day on Belmont Park’s turf course and then fly to Southern California for what is likely the final race of her career.

“She’s different here than she is anywhere else,” said DeVaux, the Belmont Park-based assistant to trainer Chad Brown. “She’s really comfortable. You can really get close to her, you can play with her. She’s affectionate – completely at ease when she trains here. It was emotional to think that was the last time we get to do that.”

There are a lot of lasts that those closest to Lady Eli – DeVaux, Melasquez, groom Hugo Rodriguez, and hotwalker Juan Estrada – are experiencing. They hope there are two more firsts to experience, as in Lady Eli finishing first in Saturday’s $2 million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar and subsequently winning her first Eclipse Award as champion female turf horse.

The Breeders’ Cup is scheduled to be Lady Eli’s final start before she is sold at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale on Nov. 7. Lady Eli, a daughter of Divine Park owned by the Sheep Pond Partners of Sol Kumin and Jay Hanley, has won 10 of 13 starts, including five Grade 1 races, and has $2.9 million in earnings. There is always a chance she could be bought and put back in training next year, but it’s just as likely she would be bred.

It has been a remarkable journey for Brown and his staff. There were, of course, the wins, but there was also the year Lady Eli was sidelined due to laminitis that she contracted by stepping on a nail following her victory in the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks as a 3-year-old. There were times when it looked bleak, that Lady Eli would not survive, let alone race again.

Those around Lady Eli knew, however, that if anybody could make it, she could.

“Her personality is the reason why she is where she is now,” DeVaux said. “There’s no giving up in her.”

“She’s so unique,” Melasquez said. “She’s special. She’s a fighter – galloping, racing, and in the stall. She fights everything. She fights laminitis, she fights in the races, she fights with Cherie and me. When she’s galloping and I take too much hold she wants to fight with me, so I leave her alone.

“She has personality. I’ve never seen one like her with so much personality. She’s not a lady. She tries to bite people. Her personality is what makes her unique.”

Brown say Lady Eli’s personality is not mean, per se, but she is territorial. She has her space, and limits those who can invade it. Melasquez said that when he gets off Lady Eli after a gallop or breeze, he has to hurriedly take the tack off and get out of the stall as quickly as possible.

“Change makes her crazy,” Melasquez said. “When I try to take my saddle and the bridle she tries kicking me. She’s like ‘Okay, you’re finished, get out of my face.’ ”

Said Brown: “The people that have worked more closely with her than other members of the team have done a fabulous job, and they have formed that relationship, which I’m proud about. It’s a testament to their talent working with horses, especially ones that can be a little challenging to get along with.”

Brown also gave praise to Bryan Fraley, a podiatrist who equipped Lady Eli with special shoes when she first developed laminitis to make her comfortable. At first, Fraley worked alongside Bob Agne, but Agne was killed in a traffic accident in Vermont on Sept. 7, 2015.

Fraley, based in Lexington, Ky., still flies to New York frequently to work with Lady Eli.

“I truly believe he’s the most significant reason we’re all here today,” Brown said. “Without his talent, without his intelligence, without his experience, there’s absolutely no way this filly would be running in the Breeders’ Cup.”

Lady Eli’s story resonated with many people, some of whom reached out to Brown and his staff.

“I was really touched by a how personal some people were with her,” DeVaux said. “I got a letter from a 14-year-old girl, and it was really emotional reading the impact that Eli had to get this girl through what she was going through.”

Life will go on in the Brown stable when Lady Eli leaves. More talented runners will come in and there will be more big races for which to prepare. But things will be different.

“One thing you know training these horses is their careers are normally not that long and they’re going to come and they’re going to go,” Brown said. “This is a special situation, though, and like I said things will never be the same. But hopefully when the time comes for her to go on to her second career, she lives out a long life. I plan on visiting her quite a bit wherever she is.”