If ever there was a time to take on Lady Eli, this was the day.
Unraced since her nose loss in the Nov. 5 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1T), Sheep Pond Partners' tenacious runner was making her first appearance of the year—but like a heavyweight champion stepping into the ring, she still loomed the prohibitive favorite in the $350,000 Coolmore Jenny Wiley Stakes (G1T) April 15 at Keeneland.
It took a brash up-and-comer to put the five-time graded stakes winner away in the shadow of the wire. With the power of Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing operation on full display Saturday afternoon in Lexington, homebred Dickinson arrived to prove her mettle.
The 5-year-old daughter of Medaglia d'Oro came off back-to-back wins in graded company in Florida going 1 1/8 miles, stepping from a Suwanee River (G3T) victory at Gulfstream Park to annex the Hillsborough Stakes (G2T) at Tampa Bay Downs. Her first grade 1 was the natural progression, and the Kiaran McLaughlin trainee looked a monster in the eye with a strong late surge under jockey Paco Lopez.
"This filly's done nothing but got better, From the grade 3 to grade 2, it's been a natural progression," said Godolphin president Jimmy Bell. "She ran very determinedly. She got checked one time, but came on again with some real desire and tenacity."
Dickinson capped a tremendous four-win day at Keeneland for Godolphin and McLaughlin to become her sire's 17th grade 1 winner. Godolphin also took the Ben Ali Stakes (G3) with Watershed, won the sixth race with Zennor, and took the fourth with Tasteful. McLaughlin equaled the single-day records of fellow conditioners Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher with his quadruple score.
“That's great company to be in," McLaughlin said. "For Godolphin, it’s a great day, and she’s just a nice filly. It's just unbelievable to win four at Keeneland, especially ending with a grade 1.”
"This is such a team effort with the breeding, the farm, the stallions, raising these things. Kiaran and his team—to have it all come together on one day where everybody can participate and share ... this is what we try so hard for," Bell said. "It rarely happens, but when it does, there's a lot of joy. For Sheikh Mohammed in particular, this is the level we hope to compete at, and to be able to top it off with a grade 1 win today is very special for our breeding and racing operation. It reflects a lot on Sheikh Mohammed's program. We're very proud of that, and very happy we can enjoy the day."
Dickinson was confidently handled in the 1 1/16-mile Jenny Wiley by Lopez, who had her in the three path early while stalking the pace set by Catch a Glimpse, Canada's 2015 Horse of the Year. That rival went a quarter in :23.74 and a half in :48.05 while leading the rest of the eight-horse field by a length, with 1-2 choice Lady Eli sixth early on. Catch a Glimpse held her advantage through three-quarters in 1:12.63, but was taken over by Illuminant, who led briefly off the turn for home after tracking second throughout.
Lady Eli made her run, lugging out but inching clear inside the sixteenth pole. Meanwhile, lacking room in upper stretch, Lopez swung Dickinson out to the six path. The bay mare re-broke and roared home, catching her accomplished foe by a head.
Dickinson returned $14.40, $4.40, and $3.60 at odds of 6-1, while Lady Eli paid $2.40 and $2.10. Quidura brought $5.40, 1 1/4 lengths back. Kitten's Roar, Goodyearforroses, Time and Motion, Illuminant, and Catch a Glimpse completed the order of finish. The final time on firm turf was 1:41.98.
"(In) each of her races, she's really done no wrong once we put her on the grass," Bell said of Dickinson, who raced five times and won twice on dirt before she was moved to turf in September of 2016. "She had a litte funny race her first time, didn't really understand everything, but since then she's been perfect. She needed to be perfect today to beat this class field.
"She's given us all the good signs all the way through, but you really never know until you get tested out there if you've got the grade 1 class."
Dickinson, bred in Kentucky out of the late A.P. Indy mare Little Belle, will target the June 10 Longines Just a Game Stakes (G1T) going a mile at Belmont Park. Little Belle, another homebred for the organization, won Keeneland's 2008 Ashland Stakes (G1).
"We don't need to say anything about Lady Eli. We know she's just a world-class champion filly, but it was her first time back after a layoff and if there was a time to try that, we probably picked a good time," Bell said. "I felt like we were going to run out of real estate there. I knew she was coming, but Lady Eli just kind of repulses those challenges every time."
"She ran a terrific race," trainer Chad Brown said of Lady Eli. "When she hit the lead near the wire, she might have waited just a bit. The winner ran extremely well. She had to rally after her momentum stopped.
"It’s tough, but it was her first start of the year, so hopefully she will move forward off of it. We'll get her back to Belmont Park and then pick out a race up there. She is a neck and two noses from being undefeated. She is a great horse and I am really proud of her effort today.”