Keeneland’s Before the Hammer: Lady Eli Another Jewel in Hill ‘n’ Dale Crown

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Lady Eli | Sarah K. Andrew

By Lucas Marquardt

Before the Hammer is a series presented by Keeneland that spotlights consignors, their stories of success and their featured offerings at the upcoming Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale.

With three sale toppers on the ledger, John G. Sikura’s Hill ‘n’ Dale Sales has made a habit of trading in excellence at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale. From the November-record $10.5 million Playful Act (Ire) (’07), to the $4.5 million Pure Clan (’12), to the $6 million Take Charge Brandi (’15), Hill ‘n’ Dale has sold some of the most prized breeding stock of recent times. On the second day of the 2017 renewal, Wednesday, Nov. 8, Hill ‘n’ Dale returns with another rare gem. That’s when Sheep Pond Partners’s Lady Eli (Divine Park) enters the ring as Hip 271, closing a chapter in a back-from-the-brink story that has captivated the racing world.

“If you wrote a script, you couldn’t do better than Lady Eli’s story,” Sikura said earlier this week. “It’s almost fiction, it’s so good.”

That story is well known but bears repeating. Lady Eli was a talking horse at Saratoga even before her debut, and when she soared to victory in the 2014 GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, she gave credence to those who were saying that this was a horse with special talent.

“I thought she was the best 2-year-old grass filly I’ve ever trained off [her first turf] breeze,” trainer Chad Brown told the Daily Racing Form after the win.

Lady Eli was still undefeated nine months later when she aired in the GI Belmont Oaks in a manner that suggested we hadn’t even seen her best yet. Then, on the way back from the test barn after the Oaks, she stepped on a nail in the horsepath. Within a day, she developed laminitis in her right front, and then her left. For weeks, her connections hoped their star filly would live. Which made her recovery and return to racing that much more remarkable.

By December 2015, Lady Eli was back jogging. She finally faced the starter 13 months after her injury in the 2016 GII Ballston Spa S., losing her unbeaten record but little else in a stirring comeback that saw her run second by 3/4 of a length. If doubters remained, her win in the GI Flower Bowl a start later put the official stamp of greatness on her.

“It’s so rare for horses to come back to prior form from something like that,” said Sikura. “There are rare examples–Personal Ensign, who had screws in her ankle, comes to mind–but it takes a special horse.”

Lady Eli ran second in last year’s GI Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, and was second again on seasonal return in the GI Coolmore Jenny Wiley S. in April. Since then, all marks have come in the win column: the GI Gamely S., the GI Diana S., and the GII Ballston Spa S.

“To see that full recovery, not only in health but performance…is a credit to the team around her, and to the endeavor of breeding horses,” said Sikura. “You get a rare one like this and it’s special. We’re honored to have her.”

Next up for Lady Eli: the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf once again, and a return to the Keeneland sales ring, where she’s been twice before. She sold for $160,000 in 2013 as a September yearling to Bradley Thoroughbreds, and for the same amount at the 2014 April Sale to Jay Hanley. Sikura is confident buyers will appreciate this third go-round.

“Physically, she’s a beautiful mare,” he said. “She’s big, strong and stout, but she’s also elegant. From a pedigree perspective, she’s wide open to breed to–War Front, Galileo (Ire), Medaglia d’Oro, Kitten’s Joy–any of those elite turf sires. It goes back to a very deep Runnymede family. She’s everything you look for in a mare.”

Hill ‘n’ Dale’s November Sale draft goes deeper than Lady Eli, of course, and recently became much deeper when it was announced that the impeccably bred Twirl (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) would be supplemented to the sale as Hip 366A. Twirl, in foal to Curlin, is a stakes-winning full-sister to champion and Classic heroine Misty For Me (Ire), who in turn is the dam of Roly Poly (War Front) and U S Navy Flag (War Front), triple and dual Group 1 winners in 2017, respectively.

Hill ‘n’ Dale has always had a strong weanling presence at November–six of the top 11 weanlings fillies ever to sell at the November Sale hailed from a Hill ‘n’ Dale consignment–but 2017 sees the Lexington-based nursery take a slightly different tack. Hill ‘n’ Dale is still packed with high-end weanlings, but has cut down significantly, by about half, the number brought to auction.

“I think last year, our whole draft of weanlings was a bit intimidating,” said Sikura. “I don’t think the market could absorb all of them. We sold a Violence colt for $70,000 who brought $725,000 [at the Keeneland September Sale].. We handpicked horses to suit the sale, and with the strength of the September market, I’m glad we did. So we’re selling many fewer weanlings, but they’re elite prospects.”

One standout figures to be Hip 332, a colt by Tapit out of the Grade III winner Smart Surprise (Smart Strike).

“He’s a fantastic horse,” said Sikura. “and he’s got a pedigree that’s really improving. His 3-year-old Bernardini half-brother, Robusto, just won by 13 lengths [at Gulfstream Sept. 29 for trainer Todd Pletcher]. His 4-year-old half-sister, Moonlit Promise (Malibu Moon), just won another stakes, and the [unraced] 2-year-old half [Early Light, by Malibu Moon] just worked a bullet five furlongs. And it’s the immediate family of A.P. Indy, so it’s a stallion’s pedigree.”

Hill ‘n’ Dale was the leading consignor at Keeneland November in 2015, with 97 sold for receipts of $28,392,700, and is coming off a big 2016 November. Sikura and company sold Feathered (Indian Charlie) in foal to War Front for $2.35 million to Summer Wind Equine, and sold a pair of seven-figure weanlings. The War Front–Drifting Cube (Aus) colt went to M.V. Magnier for $1.45 million, and the Tapit–Serena’s Cat half to Honor Code went to Baccari Bloodstock for $1.05 million. After a record-breaking September Yearling Sale, Sikura is optimistic 2017 could be ever better.

“I think the whole sale will be buoyed by the strength of September,” he said. “That was the most electric atmosphere I’ve felt in an arena in 10 years. You had to jump through all the hoops, but if you did, you were rewarded in a way that you haven’t been in many years. Those are the kind of sales years you need. It not only gives breeders the capital to reinvest, but also the confidence to do so. With everything that’s being offered in November this year, I don’t know how you could miss being here.”

 

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