After 14 starts, 10 wins, five grade 1 triumphs, and one victory over often fatal circumstances, Sheep Pond Partners' Lady Eli finally figures to get a golden Eclipse Award trophy to add to her resume when the total votes for champion turf female are calculated next month.
Though the daughter of Divine Park is a near-certain pick to earn her first piece of year-end hardware, the next portion of her career is still being debated.
Since emerging from her seventh-place finish in the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1T) at Del Mar with significant lacerations and a puncture wound to her hind legs, Lady Eli has been on the mend at Hill 'n' Dale Farm near Lexington while her connections contemplate whether or not her racing days are officially done. The 5-year-old mare was originally slated to be sold at the Keeneland November sale, but the nature of her injuries prompted owners Jay Hanley and Sol Kumin of Sheep Pond Partners to withdraw her from the auction.
With her physical recovery complete, Kumin said they are currently trying to decide whether to send Lady Eli back into training with Chad Brown for a 2018 campaign or breed her and send her through the sales ring next fall.
"We're right in the throes of making a decision ... because if we're going to send her back, she'd probably have to be on her way to Palm Meadows (Training Center) in the next week or two," Kumin said Dec. 14. "We're trying to talk through it. She's doing great. She's at the farm, she's completely sound, and we go back and forth.
"I would say the two options are send her back to Chad in the next handful of weeks or essentially leave her at the farm and put her in foal to a sexy stallion and sell her next November. It's almost 100% one of those two things. I just don't know which one."
Kumin added that many of Lady Eli's key career moves were dictated by the sassy dark bay mare herself.
A grade 1 winner at 2, 3, 4, and 5, Lady Eli famously overcame a serious bout of laminitis that sent her to the sideline for more than a year. The 2017 season marked her first full season following that setback, and she responded by winning three of five starts including victories in the Gamely Stakes (G1T) and Diana Stakes (G1T).
"The hard part for us, is we go through days where we're like, she's always kind of told us what she wants to do," Kumin said. "Even after she was sick, we were always so conservative with her and she always wanted to do more, wanted to do more.
"If we send her back to Chad and in a month he's like 'She's not the same', then boom. It's done. There is no pressure. We don't need to campaign her and make her a champion. There is a part of me that feels like we should give her a chance to make the decision for herself, and then there is another part of me that feels like she has earned this time to be able to move onto the next part of her life. And maybe the last race was a sign for that. There is both sides."
Adding to the tough nature of this particular decision is that Kumin and his partners got a brutal recent reminder of how precious top runners are and how fleeting their time is.
Multiple grade 1-placed Fanciful Angel, who Kumin owned a percentage of, passed away last weekend in a freak stall accident at Palm Meadows. No matter which path Kumin and Hanley chose for Lady Eli, the gratitude for what she has already achieved and endured will be paramount.
"No decision is easy, but this is a hard one," Kumin said.