SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- What everybody hoped would be a storybook ending to an incredible day of racing at Saratoga on Saturday didn't quite turn out as most had expected, with Lady Eli's comeback in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa spoiled by an unlikely nemesis, the 27-1 Strike Charmer.
Lady Eli came into the Ballston Spa off nearly a 14-month layoff. She developed laminitis in both front feet shortly after running her record to 6 for 6 with a victory in the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks Invitational in July 2015. To say she defied the odds just making it back to the races at all would be an understatement. But in the end, the combination of the long layoff and a big performance by Strike Charmer proved just a bit too much to overcome.
Strike Charmer benefitted from a fast pace and a perfectly judged ride by Junior Alvarado, who rated her at the rear of the pack and well off the pace set by Lady Eli's stablemate Sympathy. Miss Temple City was the first to challenge the leader, taking command on the second turn of the 1-1/16-mile turf race with both Lady Eli and Strike Charmer on the move.
Lady Eli rallied wide off the final turn and forged to a short advantage inside the eighth pole. Alvarado followed Ladi Eli while keeping Strike Charmer widest of all into the stretch. Lady Eli continued on gamely, but Strike Charmer finished best of all out past the center of the track to register a three-quarter-length decision while setting a stakes record of 1:38.77 over the firm turf.
Strike Charmer, a Grade 3 winner earlier in the season, was coming off a fifth-place finish while beaten less than two lengths in the Grade 1 Diana earlier in the meet. She paid $57.50.
"I didn't think they'd go that fast early, but we knew where we needed to be with the pace going that way," said Mark Hennig, who trains the homebred Strike Charmer for the Courtlandt Farm of owners Donald and Donna Adam. "Junior got off of her last time and said she was making up ground and wasn't really extending herself. So he felt like having learned something from riding her once, that he would be wide and kind of sit. Lady Eli took the overland route and I thought he did a great job hiding out behind her and letting her pounce, and we were fortunate enough to run her down today."
Hennig said defeating a filly of Lady Eli's reputation made winning a race like the Ballston Spa all the more special.
"It's an amazing story that she's come back from what she has," said Hennig. "Any time that happens, we all feel it in the industry, but we don't mind raining on her parade today."
Trainer Chad Brown was humble in defeat following Lady Eli's first setback in seven career starts.
"I'm disappointed that she got beat, but I'm happy she's back to the races," said Brown. "It looked like she got a little tired that last part. She made a big move there on the turn into a wicked pace and it just took a little too much out of her. We could have played it safe and just retired her. But she's perfectly sound, she has a huge following, and she acted like she wanted to run.
"She's going to move forward and build off this, and we're going to work our way to the Breeders' Cup."