SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Sheep Pond Partners' Lady Eli produced another memorable effort at historic Saratoga Race Course, running down Quidura in the final strides to win the 79th running of the Grade 1, $500,000 Diana for fillies and mares 3-years-old and up on Saturday.
Lady Eli outlasted Quidura by a head, completing 1 1/8 miles on the Mellon turf course in 1:46.17 to win her second consecutive Grade 1 start - building on her Gamely effort on May 27 at Santa Anita - and her fourth overall.
The Spa was the site of Lady Eli's debut win as a juvenile in 2014 and also her runner-up in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa last August after a 13-month layoff to recover from laminitis. Her initial victory propelled her to a win in that year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and her effort last year was a precursor to a win in the Grade 1 Flower Bowl at Belmont Park.
The 5-year-old Chad Brown trainee, who broke early from the gate with stablemate Antonoe, stayed off Quidura's early fractions of 23.59 seconds for a quarter-mile with the half going in 47.51 after they reloaded.
But Lady Eli, carrying the highweight of 123 pounds, showed the closing speed displayed in her Grade 1 Flower Bowl win, with jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. going three-wide in deep stretch, outkicking both Quidura and a charging Antonoe from the rail to notch her ninth win in 12 career starts.
"I was happy [with the pace]. It was a perfect trip following them. She's a nice filly and she always shows up," said Ortiz about Lady Eli, who has never finished worse than second in her career. "Mike Smith told me one time: a good horse gives you good pressure. She gives me the confidence. I had a lot of patience and waited until I felt like I was going to get there. I didn't hesitate; I just showed her the whip. I never hit her, I rode her with confidence."
Ortiz finished with four wins on the day, including both stakes races after piloting Firenze Fire to victory in the Grade 3, $150,000 Sanford in Race 9.
Brown, who had three wins on the day, won his third Diana and repeated the effort after saddling Dacita last year. He also won with Zagora in 2011.
"Today was one of her greatest races to date. Maybe her best," Brown said. "Giving eight pounds to the horse she ran down late in the stretch after breaking through the gate, going a little wide, she just overcame everything. Today she proved she's one of the all-time greats.
"It was her determination," he added. "I'm proud she didn't hang there in the end. She's always drove past another horse as long as she can see them. She might have been undefeated; three times she's gotten beat late in the stretch from behind."
Off as the 4-5 favorite, Lady Eli paid $3.90 on a $2 win wager, improving her career earnings to $2,719,800. She won consecutive races for the first time since returning from injuries.
Brown said breaking through the gate is "never a good sign," though her response impressed him.
"You can probably walk through the grandstand here and talk to the people who actually wager their money every day, and they'll tell you most of the times that happens they don't win," Brown said. "She just overcame that much breaking through the gate. A remarkable performance. The fractions we're solid enough, but then again I know this horse on the lead is a real quality horse. What I liked at that point was that she was alone back there. I felt confident that Irad could at least give her a clear run in the stretch and that's all I asked in the paddock. If you just get her clear, I'm confident she'll get there, and she did."
Quidura, a 4-year-old English-bred bay filly for trainer Graham Motion, was carrying three pounds less than the 118 she trekked in a third third-place effort to Diana participants Dickinson and Lady Eli in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley. Under jockey Junior Alvarado, Quidura finished one length ahead of Antonoe on the firm turf course.
Antonoe, who entered 2-for-2 since arriving from France, got a piece of the board under jockey Javier Castellano.
Harmonize, Dickinson and My Impression completed the order of finish.