By Geoffrey Riddle
The Europeans are stacked in the Filly & Mare Turf at Del Mar on Saturday with five entries, but they are going to all have to bring their A-Game to the table to beat home favourite Lady Eli.
Last year’s Filly & Mare winner Queen’s Trust, who beat Lady Eli by a nose 12 months ago, returns for Frankie Dettori and Sir Michael Stoute, while Aidan O’Brien’s Rhododendron, Godolphin’s Wuheida, Roger Varian’s frequent traveller Nezwaah and France’s Senga complete the raiding party.
Lady Eli has rattled off two Grade One victories this season, and warmed up in August with a power-packed display in the Grade Two Spa Stakes and it is easy to see why she is no better than Coral’s 11-4.
Last year she was sent off the 5-2 favourite, having battled back from the ravages of laminitis, a equine disease that leads to the bones in a horse’s hoof to rotate and ended the lives of the great Secretariat and Barbaro.
There have been no such life-threatening complications this season, and for a horse who has won at the highest-level at two, three, four and five it is no wonder trainer Chad Brown and the rest of his team are in awe of her iron will and athletic ability.
“Lady Eli is a very special horse to me and my entire staff and her owners for all she’s overcome, for her incredible talent that she has and so many places she’s brought us together,” Brown said by teleconference.Queen's Trust edged out Lady Eli in a thrilling Filly & Mare last year (Eclipse Sportswire)
“So we’re very fond of her obviously. And I think for the sport, I think it’s been a great story on many fronts about what horses can overcome, about making a lot of people more aware about what laminitis is and the possible treatments now with advanced technology.
“And, you know, just really the will to win, I think. You know, you come across very rare horses not too often in your life. I’ve never seen one up close with this much heart and determination. And I just hope everyone has the opportunity to be close to a horse like this sometime in their lives.”
Brown has won the Filly & Mare Turf three times in the past five years, with Sir Michael Stoute filling the gaps with Queen’s Trust and Dank in 2013. If Brown has utmost faith in Lady Eli’s chances from stall nine under Irad Ortiz, he respects what his filly is up against.
“I wouldn’t think that any connections of the Europeans would come all the way over unless they thought they, you know, had a really good shot.
“Any time you see European horses show up, they’re scary to run against. But you know, American horses in some of these turf races have fared very well.
"And you got to pick your spots and hopefully you have an exceptional horse. I think we have some we’re running on this card. But, you know, if you want to compete internationally, like we are getting ready to do here in this Breeders’ Cup festival, you know, it’s – you should have a horse that’s says international class really.
"She looks great right now, better than ever, and all her recent workouts have been spectacular.
"She's a horse that never ceases to amaze me. At this stage of her career, to be training better than ever - defies logic, really.
"She has the talent, the desire and the will to win and overcome anything.
A return to fast ground is expected to bring out the best in Queen's Trust as she bids to become only the second dual winner and first to win the race back-to-back.Queen's Trust has worked well at Del Mar this week (Eclipse Sportswire)
Ouija Board struck in 2006, two seasons after her first win, but Queen’s Trust is having to drop down to nine furlongs on Saturday as the race has been shortened due to the nature of the California course.
Queen’s Trust has been running consistently well at the top level this season without winning and with Frankie Dettori in the saddle for the first time in a year, hopes are high she can round off her racing career in the grandest manner.
Chris Richardson, managing director for owner-breeders Cheveley Park Stud, said: "Every race she has run this year has been on good to soft or soft ground. She likes the fast ground.
"She hasn't really had a chance with the ground this year and this is the last race of her career. Mr and Mrs Thompson (owners) were happy to take another chance and Sir Michael recommended she ran.
"We know she is hugely talented, it is just a question of getting her conditions.
"It was fantastic winning the race last year as it crowned our year."
Stoute is similarly hopeful conditions will help Queen's Trust rediscover her best form, but admits the race being run over nine furlongs, rather than the usual mile and a quarter, is a disadvantage.
He said: "She's going back a furlong, which is not ideal. She needed every inch of the trip at Santa Anita.
"But she'll like these conditions and she'll like the American pace she's going to get.
"Then again, she'll need a bit of luck en route."
Aidan O'Brien has surprisingly never won the Filly & Mare Turf, but feels Rhododendron has what it takes to make her presence felt.
Placed in the 1000 Guineas and the Oaks, the daughter of Galileo opened her Group One account when she edged out stablemate Hydrangea in the Prix de l'Opera.
O'Brien said: "It was a great performance for her to beat Hydrangea, who obviously went on to win at Ascot next time._Rhododendron bids to become Aidan O'Brien's first winner of the Filly & Mare _(PA)
"Given how much she stepped forward from her previous run at Leopardstown, it might be too much to hope that she could improve from that again, but if she runs to a similar level again we'd be delighted."
The four-strong European challenge is completed by the Roger Varian-trained Nezwaah and Charlie Appleby's Wuheida.
The latter was beaten less than a length into fourth by Rhododendron in France last month, having previously occupied the same position in the Matron Stakes at Leopardstown.
Appleby said: "If she brings that Matron form or the Prix de l'Opera form here on Saturday, I think she's a major player.
"I think she'll be suited by getting back on a sounder surface and she's been here a bit longer than most of the horses as she was due to run in Keeneland before she got the corn a couple of days before the Queen Elizabeth.
"She's settled in very well. I'm delighted with the way she looks and the way she's training."