Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. opened the reins aboard Lady Eli and then held tight as the dark bay filly unleashed her familiar acceleration down the Keeneland stretch. In that moment, trainer Chad Brown knew it was safe for him to stop holding his breath.
Confident as Brown was that the sophomore version of Lady Eli would live up to her 2-year-old self, nothing is for sure with Thoroughbreds until they go out and show you themselves. Sunday's Grade III, $125,000 Appalachian Stakes concluded with Lady Eli still having yet to put a foot wrong as she cruised to a 21/2-length win in her seasonal bow to remain unbeaten in four career starts.
The one-mile Appalachian was one of two graded stakes on Sunday's card. The Grade II, $250,000 Adena Springs Beaumont Stakes saw Graham Motion trainee-Miss Ella edge clear for a 21/2-length upset victory at odds of 9-to-1, earning her first graded stakes win in just her second career start.
This weekend was already going into the books as a good one for Brown as he saddled Ball Dancing to victory in the Grade I Jenny Wiley on Saturday. Of all the top turf fillies he has had in his care — past and present — Lady Eli is making a case to ultimately end up in the same breath as Brown-trained champions Dayatthespa, Stacelita, and Zagora.
Owned by Sheep Pond Partners, the daughter of Divine Park was making her first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Santa Anita Park last October 31. Her 2-to-5 favoritism in the field of seven spoke to the public's faith in her, and her stalk-and-pounce move past Grade I winner Sunset Glow validated Brown's belief.
"This filly is something special. She's been training, so strong, so sharp starting this winter off after a brief break," Brown said. "We were optimistic she could come back even better at age 3 and if this is any indicator, she did."
Lady Eli was her usual professional self in the early going of the Appalachian, rating second behind Sunset Glow in an outside path through fractions of 24.04 and 48.48 over a course rated good.
Lady Eli started to move forward on her own approaching the final turn, taking over at the head of the lane after a few nudges from Ortiz on her way to hitting the line in 1:35.80.
"It was mostly relief (when she started to draw off)," said Brown, who mentioned the Wonder Again Stakes at Belmont Park May 31 as a possibility for her next start. "Certainly there is a lot of pressure associated with handling a horse of this caliber. But luckily the filly takes over once we lead her out there. She does really all the work, we just try and stay out of her way and so far it's been working."
Motion happily watched his charge Miss Temple City edge Sunset Glow out for second in the Appalachian, then had a full-on celebration himself three races later thanks to his own budding standout Miss Ella.
Owned and bred by Jack Swain III, Miss Ella won her career debut going six furlongs on the main track at Gulfstream Park on March 11 and had been a regular workmate of Donworth, who finished second in the Grade III Coolmore Lexington Stakes on Saturday in his second career outing.
The 3-year-old daughter of Exchange Rate sat third on the outside as Divine Dawn and Fantastic Style ran side by side through a half in 46.11 before advancing three-wide under jockey Rajiv Maragh and putting away the front-runners under steady urging.
"Her mother was a turf horse so it's a little bit of a surprise," Motion said of Miss Ella's dirt form. "She's just got the neatest disposition. She's the easiest, kindest filly. It was a great opportunity to get some graded stakes money, and we were able to get all of it."
Miss Ella crossed the finish line in a final time of 1:28.11. Divine Dawn held for second with Fantastic Style third.