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Breeders’ Cup final show for Lady Eli

Irad Ortiz Jr. celebrates after riding Lady Eli

Irad Ortiz Jr. celebrates after riding Lady Eli to victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf horse race at Santa Anita Park, Friday, Oct. 31, 2014, in Arcadia, Calif Credit: AP / Jae C. Hong

DEL MAR, Calif. — What she did an hour earlier was brilliant, dominating a million-dollar turf stakes to keep her record perfect. What she was doing couldn’t have been more routine, walking back to Chad Brown’s barn at Belmont Park. That’s when Lady Eli stepped on a nail with her left front foot, and soon her life would be in jeopardy.

A week later, in mid-July 2015, the superstar filly had developed laminitis, a painful hoof disease that can be fatal. When a horse goes severely lame in one leg, it has to put all of its weight on the opposite one. It can gradually destroy bone, and in severe cases, euthanasia is the only option, as it was for Secretariat and Barbaro.

Brown, one of the world’s best trainers, endured days when he feared Lady Eli wasn’t going to make it.

“The first two or three days, we really weren’t sure,” he said recently. “We knew the percentages and we weren’t at all thinking of racing her again at that point. You’re never out of the woods with laminitis until you’re very, very far down the road. Even months down the road, we were just trying to get her to survive and have a long life as a broodmare.”

Not only did Lady Eli get through her ordeal, but 13 months after being diagnosed, she finished a close second in a Saratoga stakes. Never had a first defeat been so uplifting. On Saturday, the 5-year-old mare will complete a certain Hall of Fame career in the $2-million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Del Mar. She’s the 5-2 morning-line betting choice and the overwhelming sentimental favorite in a race she lost by a nose last year.

“She’s very special to me, my staff and her owners for her courage and incredible talent,” Brown said. “And for the sport, I think it’s been a great story on many fronts about what horses can overcome. I’ve never seen one up close with so much heart and determination.”

Lady Eli is 10-for-13 with three seconds, all on grass, with earnings of $2.939 million for Sheep Pond Partners. The only time she’s been farther back than a head was in her comeback last summer, when the margin was three-quarters of a length. It will be hard for Brown to say goodbye.

“It will take quite a bit of time to get over that,” he said. “You know thoroughbreds’ careers normally aren’t very long, and you should be aware of that when you sign up for a job like this. This is a special situation, though, and things will never be quite the same.”

‘Forever’ takes Distaff. Forever Unbridled ($9.40) rallied to win the $2-million Distaff by half a length over Abel Tasman before a crowd of 32,278 Friday at Del Mar. Elate, the 2-1 favorite, was fourth. Dallas Stewart trains the winner, and John Velazquez rode . . . Mendelssohn ($11.60) gave Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien his fourth Juvenile Turf victory, and Rushing Fall ($8) gave Brown his fourth in the Juvenile Fillies Turf . . . Battle of Midway ($30.40) took the Dirt Mile for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer . . . Destin ($6), second by a nose in last year’s Belmont, took the 1¾-mile Marathon for Velazquez and Todd Pletcher.

ED MCNAMARA’S PICKS

Juvenile Fillies: Heavenly Love, Moonshine Memories, Separationofpowers

Turf Sprint: Lady Aurelia, Disco Partner, Pure Sensation

Filly & Mare Sprint: Unique Bella, Ami’s Mesa, Paulassilverlining

Filly & Mare Turf: Lady Eli, Wuheida, War Flag

Sprint: Drefong, Roy H, Mind Your Biscuits

Mile: Ribchester, World Approval, Home of the Brave

Juvenile: Free Drop Billy, Bolt d’Oro, U S Navy Flag

Turf: Talismanic, Highland Reel, Decorated Knight

Classic: Gunnevera, Gun Runner, Collected

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