Six Grade I races are slated at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday, each loaded with star power and drama. They will go into the books as some of the best Thoroughbred races of 2016.
And they might all end up taking a backseat when determining the most stirring performance of the day.
Thirteen months ago, the racing community had a star on its hands in unbeaten filly Lady Eli, and 13 months ago, many worried if she would live through the summer much less make it back to the races. After her victory in the Grade I Belmont Oaks last July 4, Lady Eli stepped on a nail while heading back to trainer Chad Brown’s barn and, about a week later, began showing signs of the often-fatal disease laminitis in both front feet.
Through some exceptional veterinary care, fortunate circumstances and the work of barn staff who would rarely leave her side, Lady Eli recovered from that potential tragedy and is making a remarkable return to the races in Saturday’s Grade II Ballston Spa Stakes over the Saratoga turf. The race will go to post after the 147th running of the Grade I, $1.25 million Travers Stakes.
“It’s a big deal,” Brown said of Lady Eli’s comeback. “She’s been a long way back and I think she’s training outstanding right now. I’m really excited to get her back out there racing again. I can just see that she wants to run and I’m letting her run.
“Lady Eli is made of steel, really, when you think about it. I’m a fan of hers along with being her trainer.”
Before being sidelined, Lady Eli was one of the most explosive turf performers of either gender, racking up a 6-for-6 career record that included victories in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and a 2 1/2 -length win in the 2015 Grade III Appalachian Stakes at Keeneland.
“It’s kind of like watching your child go off to kindergarten for the first time,” said Jay Hanley, who is one of two managing partners of owner Sheep Pond Partners. “We’ve been here before and she’s been great. But this is the first time she’s been back off the injury.”
Here is your weekend cheat sheet of the top racing action:
Grade I, $750,000 Personal Ensign Stakes for fillies and mares 3-years-old and up going 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga
Post time: 2:23 p.m. EDT
Key contenders: Grade I winners I’m a Chatterbox and Curalina face off in a rematch of their outing in last year’s Coaching Club American Oaks when the former hit the wire first but was disqualified to second due to interference. I’m a Chatterbox most recently defeated fellow entrant Paid Up Subscriber in the Grade I Delaware Handicap on July 16 with Curalina capturing the Grade III Shuvee Handicap on July 31.
Others to watch: This compact field of five is packed with quality. Cavorting enters off a win in the Grade I Ogden Phipps Stakes on June 11 where she bested Apple Blossom winner and fellow Personal Ensign entrant Forever Unbridled.
Grade I, $500,000 Ballerina Stakes for fillies and mares 3-years-old and up going 7 furlongs at Saratoga
Post time: 2:59 p.m. EDT
Key contender: After being handily defeated by champion Songbird in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks going 1 1/8 miles July 24, Grade I winner Carina Mia cuts back in distance and faces older fillies for the first time in the 10-horse Ballerina field.
Others to watch: Sheer Drama ran one of the best races of her life at the 7-furlong distance when she won the Grade I Madison Stakes in her season debut at Keeneland on April 9. Wavell Avenue, winner of the Shine Again Stakes on Aug. 3, won the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint last Oct. 31 but has been 0-for-3 in graded stakes since.
Grade I, $500,000 King’s Bishop for 3-year-olds going 7 furlongs at Saratoga
Post time: 3:35 p.m. EDT
Key contender: After three straight fourth-place finishes, multiple graded stakes winner Mohaymen tries to regain his mojo by cutting back to sprinting in a depth-laden field of 13.
Others to watch: While Mohaymen has back class, Tom’s Ready looked like a horse who had found a niche going 7 furlongs when he exploded with a last-to-first charge to win the Grade II Woody Stephens over fellow King’s Bishop entrant Fish Trappe Road at Belmont on June 11.
Grade I, $700,000 Forego Stakes for 3-year-olds and up going 7 furlongs at Saratoga
Post time: 4:12 p.m. EDT
Key contender: Sporting a perfect record through four starts this year, A.P. Indian puts his win streak on the line as he enters off a 1 1/4 -length win in the Grade I Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga on July 30. The 6-year-old Indian Charlie gelding is unbeaten in three career tries at 7 furlongs.
Others to watch: Also exiting the Vanderbilt are Catalina Red, who was third, and sixth-place finisher Anchor Down, a Grade III winner owned by Alto Racing and trained by Todd Pletcher.
Grade I, $1,000,000 Sword Dancer Stakes for 3-year-olds and up going 1 1/2 miles on the turf at Saratoga
Post time: 4:49 p.m. EDT
Watch: NBC-18, TVG
Key contender: Multiple Grade/Group I winner Flintshire won this race last August in what was just his second North American start and has been the clear class of the turf male division this season with victories in the Grade I Manhattan at Belmont and Grade II Bowling Green Stakes over the Saratoga course on July 30.
Others to watch: Money Multiplier, like Flintshire, is trained by Chad Brown and, while he may be a cut below his stablemate, he did run second in both the Grade I Man o’ War and United Nations Stakes.
Grade I, $1,250,000 Travers Stakes for 3-year-olds going 1 1/4 miles at Saratoga
Post time: 5:44 p.m. EDT
Watch: NBC-18, TVG
Key contender: Trainer Keith Desormeaux openly stated he didn’t love how Preakness and Haskell Stakes winner Exaggerator was getting over the Saratoga track earlier in the meet, but the ample rain in recent weeks has served to tighten up the main surface. In his most recent work, Exaggerator covered 5 furlongs in 1:00.95 at Saratoga on Aug. 20.
Others to watch: The field now stands at 13 after Grade I-placed Majesto was scratched Friday due to a fever and, really, one could make a case for at least 10 of the entrants. Laoban shocked everyone when he broke his maiden winning the Grade II Jim Dandy in July, Belmont Stakes winner Creator is attempting to rebound off a sixth-place run in that race, and Chad Brown has arguably the biggest buzz horse in the field with Curlin Stakes winner Connect.
Grade II, $400,000 Ballston Spa for fillies and mares 3 years old and up going 1 1/16 miles on the turf at Saratoga
Post time: 6:20 p.m. EDT
Key contender: The story of this race, and maybe of 2016, is the return of Lady Eli. If she is anything like the filly who reigned in the 2015 Grade I Belmont Oaks, it will be one of the memorable performances of the year.
Others to watch: Lady Eli is the sentimental pick, but she will have to earn this comeback against an extremely salty bunch that includes Grade I winner Miss Temple City and multiple graded stakes winner Sentiero Italia.