If there is a talking point the oft-divided Thoroughbred racing community has generally agreed upon in recent years, is it that the female turf division is as strong as any the sport has to offer.
Lest anyone need a reminder just how deep the layers of grade 1-quality run amongst the ladies of the lawn, the April 15 edition of the $350,000 Coolmore Jenny Wiley Stakes (G1T) at Keeneland will serve as showcase of the most competitive group currently in training.
Taken individually, grade 1 winners Lady Eli, Time and Motion, and Catch a Glimpse could all vie for favoritism in any entry box they show up in. Together, the three stellar distaffers headline a spectacular edition of the 1 1/16-mile Jenny Wiley that boasts four top-level winners in its eight-horse field.
In terms of the perfect storm of talent and inspiration, it is hard to find a peer who can keep pace with Sheep Pond Partners' Lady Eli. The 5-year-old daughter of Divine Park continues to craft one of racing's great comebacks, having returned to the races last summer 13 months after being afflicted with laminitis in both front feet.
It was a freak accident that nearly derailed Lady Eli's career when she stepped on a nail while heading back to trainer Chad Brown's barn after her victory in the 2015 Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes (G1T). It is her freak ability that has allowed the dark bay mare to not only overcome the often fatal disease, but return to the form that saw her win her six starts prior to that incident, including the 2014 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1T).
Her first start back in last August's Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa Stakes (G2T) was three-quarters of a length from storybook, as she hit the line second ahead of fellow divisional stalwart and multiple grade 1 winner Miss Temple City. One start later, Lady Eli was back to the Lady Eli of old with a win in the Oct. 8 Flower Bowl Stakes (G1T). She fell just a nose short of taking the Nov. 5 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1T)—good enough to make her an Eclipse Award finalist for champion turf female.
Brown initially planned to take his time bringing Lady Eli back to the races later this spring, with the May 13 Beaugay Stakes (G3T) at Belmont Park his first target. His stable diva had other ideas, coming into hand quick enough that a Keeneland start moved to the forefront position.
"Scary enough, she's never been bigger or stronger than right now looking at her," Brown said. "Her works have been amazing down at Palm Meadows. I really didn't circle the Jenny Wiley at the first of the year. ... but as soon as I started working her, it was very apparent to me that she still had a lot of fitness from her campaign last year. It didn't take long for her to look as good as ever.
"She's 5. It could be her last year of racing. It's a grade 1 and I have what I think is the best turf mare in the country. So I have to run. And I'm going to allow her to run."
Brown added the only way Lady Eli is not heading to the starting gate Saturday is if the turf comes up soft. That he is back talking primarily about her race form and strategy rather than her life-threatening battle is something the Eclipse Award-winning trainer is both mindful of and grateful for.
"Unfortunately she had her career interrupted there for a while, but her record is remarkable," Brown said. "I would say she's an extremely rare horse."
Time and Motion took a page out of Lady Eli's book in that she too trained too well to keep in the barn this Keeneland meet. The 4-year-old daughter of Tapit enjoyed her best moment over the Lexington track's turf last fall when she outfought Harmonize at the line to capture the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes (G1T) by a head, sparking an emotional winner's circle celebration from her owner/breeder Phillips Racing Partnership.
The only time Time and Motion finished worse than second in her last seven starts came when she ran sixth against older fillies and mares in the Dec. 4 Matriarch Stakes (G1T) at Del Mar. Trainer Jimmy Toner stresses the Jenny Wiley is a starting point, not the endgame, regarding the bay filly's preparations. That said, he'll be shocked as any if she and jockey John Velazquez aren't giving rivals all they can handle down the lane.
"We initially didn't think we'd make the Jenny Wiley, but she just came into hand so quickly that I said well, let's just go for it," Toner said. "She's ready to run a good race. She's not going to be coming in with her 'A' race, being that it's her first start off the bench. But I think we're all in the same boat except Catch a Glimpse, who had the race at Gulfstream. Regardless, you have to get started, and she's doing well as she could possibly be doing."
This time last year, Catch a Glimpse was in the midst of adding to what would be an eight-race win streak that had some thinking she was the best sophomore turf horse of either sex. Since her victory in the Belmont Oaks last July, the 2015 Canadian Horse of the Year has dropped four straight, with her most puzzling run being a seventh-place finish in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup.
In her seasonal bow, the 4-year-old daughter of City Zip chased fellow grade 1 winner Celestine en route to finishing second in the March 4 Sand Springs Stakes. She owns prior form at Keeneland, having won both the 2015 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and grade 3 Appalachian Stakes Presented by Japan Racing Association last April at the track, and should be the controlling pace Saturday.
"She looks the best I've seen her look, but this is quite a race," said Mark Casse, trainer of Catch a Glimpse. "We're keeping our fingers crossed. But it's going to be a tall task."
Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners' Illuminant, winner of the grade 1 Gamely Stakes last May, finished third in the 2016 Jenny Wiley behind champion Tepin and captured the March 10 Wishing Well Stakes on the downhill course at Santa Anita Park.
Keeneland, Saturday, April 15, 2017, Race 10
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Lady Eli (KY) Irad Ortiz, Jr. 123 Chad C. Brown 1/1 2 2Goodyearforroses (IRE) Corey S. Nakatani 120 Richard Baltas 20/1 3 3Catch a Glimpse (KY) Florent Geroux 118 Mark E. Casse 5/1 4 4Dickinson (KY) Paco Lopez 120 Kiaran P. McLaughlin 8/1 5 5Kitten's Roar (KY) Joel Rosario 118 Michael J. Maker 15/1 6 6Time and Motion (KY) John R. Velazquez 123 James J. Toner 4/1 7 7Illuminant (PA) Flavien Prat 118 Michael W. McCarthy 8/1 8 8Quidura (GB) Junior Alvarado 118 H. Graham Motion 10/1
Keeneland, Saturday, April 15, 2017, Race 10