It was August 17, 2014 and Sol Kumin and Jay Hanley couldn't have been more thrilled. They were about to see the immediate results of their recently formed partnership. Hanley, a building contractor who previously had owned one New York-bred filly, had built a summer house for Kumin on Sheep Pond Road on Nantucket Island and the two soon became friends and decided to buy some horses together. Hanley had his one horse with trainer Chad Brown, who agreed to train their new acquisitions.
Earlier that year, Kumin, a hedge fund trader from Boston, and Hanley, who grew up handicapping horses, had purchased a pair of 2-year-old fillies, one at the OBS April sale for $225,000 and one at the Keeneland April sale for $160,000. They formed a partnership called, what else, Sheep Pond Partners, taking in a few other investors.
Now here they were only four months later about to witness one of the fillies, the $225,000 purchase, named Tammy the Torpedo, make her career debut at Saratoga. The word was out that she could run and she was sent off as the 2-1 favorite. Kumin and Hanley watched as Tammy the Torpedo, named after Kumin's mother, rallied from seventh and just blew by her opponents, drawing off to a 3 1/4-length victory. It was no wonder why they felt like they might have something special in the daughter of More Than Ready.
Just then, Brown sitting right behind them, tugged on Hanley's shirt and said, "The one we have in the barn is a lot better than that."
Hanley couldn't believe what he was hearing. "What do you mean a lot better than that?"
All Brown said was, "Dude, trust me."
It didn't take long to find out if he was right or not. Eight days later, he entered the other filly, a daughter of Divine Park named Lady Eli, for her career debut, like Tammy the Torpedo, at 1 1/16 miles on grass.
Brown had become enamored with Lady Eli, who had been named after Kumin's wife Elizabeth, whose initials were E.L.I., so she was given the nickname Eli when she was young. Brown had never had a young horse train as well as Lady Eli was training.
"The first time this filly breezed on the turf she literally took my breath away," Brown said. "I felt she was the best 2-year-old grass filly I've ever trained just off that breeze. And we've had some good ones, like Maram, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf in 2008. But this filly is exceptional. She trains like a seasoned 3-year-old that's already won a bunch of grade 1 stakes."
Brown was so high on Lady Eli, he called Hanley after her first breeze on the grass and told him, "This horse can win the Breeders' Cup."
The word was out on Lady Eli, who was bet down to 6-5 in her debut, and while on paper her nose victory looks as if she underachieved considering all the expectations, nothing could be farther from the truth. Lady Eli had a dreadful trip and looked hopelessly beaten in the stretch, but exhibited a monster turn of foot and great determination, exploding late to pluck victory from certain defeat. It was that turn of foot and determination that would become her trademark. One of the most remarkable careers, both on and off the racetrack had begun.
After the race, Hanley texted an associate in Ireland and told him this filly's acceleration is "other worldly. When she gets going, I haven't seen a horse who can compare to her." Bloodstock agent Mike Ryan called Hanley and said, "I haven't seen that kind of turn of foot since Goldikova."
If there were any doubts about Brown's bold prediction to Hanley, they were erased when Lady Eli tracked the pace in the grade 3 Miss Grillo Stakes and again showed that explosive turn of foot, quickly drawing off to three-length victory. Finishing third was none other than her stablemate Tammy the Torpedo, who actually ran under the name Long Lake Stable.
That victory earned Lady Eli favoritism in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, despite going against a deep and talented field that included Del Mar Debutante winner Sunset Glow, several group winners from Europe, and the leading 2-year-old filly in Canada, Conquest Harlanate.
But once again, Lady Eli's turn of foot was too much for her opponents, as she blew her field away with one burst of acceleration to win by almost three lengths in a rapid 1:33 2/5 for the mile.
"She's a throwback, like a horse you would see in an old painting or photograph," Brown said after the race. "Yet she's a filly who's ahead of her time. She's special, and I hope she stays healthy because she has a huge career ahead of her."
For Hanley and Kumin, their rise to the top was meteoric, winning a Breeders' Cup race only six months after buying the first two horses they named, thanks to the efforts of Mike Ryan, Niall Brennan, and Brown.
There is no more desirable place to be at Santa Anita on Breeders' Cup day than on the so-called "Purple Pavilion," that is set up in all its glitz and glamour for Breeders' Cup winners to celebrate their victory in a palatial setting, complete with flowing champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries.
This is the last place Hanley and Kumin could have envisioned spending time when they casually formed their small partnership. Their stable, run under several names, quickly grew to over 20 horses, which for Kumin, would become only the tip of the iceberg, as he would branch out to purchase interests in a number of top-class horses, including last year's Preakness, Haskell, and Santa Anita Derby winner Exaggerator. He has now become a ubiquitous presence in major stakes races.
He eventually bought a beautiful home on Fifth Avenue in Saratoga, right on the Oklahoma training track. Each morning, he gets on his golf cart, zips through the backstretch and across Union Avenue to the main track backstretch, then hangs a hard right and heads for the Dunkin Donuts behind the grandstand for a tall glass of iced coffee. Then it's back to Oklahoma and his daily visit to Chad Brown's barn.
Despite the number of big-name stakes winners of which he owns part, the star will always be Lady Eli, who started it all, and who now owns the hearts of a nation, who prayed for her when she contracted the deadly disease laminitis after stepping on a nail following her victory in the 2015 Belmont Oaks, her sixth victory in six career starts.
Who can forget the day when Chad Brown released the following statement: "We have some unfortunate news to report from our barn. Following Lady Eli's impressive victory in the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks on July 4, she sadly stepped on a nail on the horse path on the way back to our barn and injured her left front foot. Despite our efforts, including a talented team of veterinarians, Lady Eli's injury has led to her developing laminitis. Thankfully, we have assembled the best possible team of veterinarians and farriers to stabilize her and assist her through these difficult times. I ask that all of her fans keep this magnificent racehorse in their prayers and hopefully she will be back on the racetrack flashing her brilliance again."
Not only did she miraculously survive the often fatal disease, she returned to the races, winning three more grade 1 stakes, including her emotional, gut-wrenching victory in Saturday's Diana Handicap at Saratoga, in which she broke through the gate, all wild-eyed, after her stablemate broke through right next to her. Still a bit wound up, she then had her back end give out at the break, bobbling slightly. She still closed relentlessly with a final three-eighths in :34 flat to wear down a top-class pacesetter, gutting out another victory in a blazing 1:46 flat for the 1 1/8 miles. This followed an equally gutsy performance winning the grade 1 Gamely Stakes at Santa Anita in 1:45 1/5 after another battle down the stretch. For her to survive the disease was amazing in itself, but to actually return to the races and win three grade 1 stakes and just get beat a heartbreaking nose to a European invader in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf is truly a miracle. Brown's prayers were answered. She indeed was back flashing her brilliance again.
But if any horse could have done it, it is Lady Eli, who personifies the meaning of the word Thoroughbred, which signifies horses with high energy, a fiery spirit, and unwavering courage. That is Lady Eli on and off the racetrack. Her stall is easily identifiable by the cone placed in front of it to prevent unsuspecting passersby from venturing within attack range. But like John Henry, that is what makes her who she is - a fierce competitor with grim determination who can lick anything from laminitis to her adversaries in battle to anyone who dares intrude on her space. Even her three defeats were all close finishes, in which she fought hard right to the wire, including her first start back in 14 months after conquering her disease. In short, she is and always has been a relentless force of nature.
No matter how many more races she wins, even if it is none, her storybook ending has already been written.
Now that she is an equine hero, beloved by many, and a source of inspiration to racing fans all over the country, I can't help but look back to that amazing Breeders' Cup day of 2014, when Jay Hanley led a champagne toast to the horse who would change his and Sol Kumin's life forever:
"I just want to say, ‘Thank you, Chad, and to all your assistants, and to everyone who has touched this horse from day one, including the breeders (Runnymeade Farm and Catesby Clay). It's amazing how much these trainers give up to get horses like this here. We're just blessed to have her and to have Chad conditioning her."
Elizabeth couldn't believe what her namesake had accomplished. "It's just unbelievable," she said. "I never expected anything like this."
It wasn't too long ago that Hanley, who grew up near Saratoga, had his one filly, Wild Grace, who he had bought for $85,000. His mother was dying of pancreatic cancer and he wanted something to keep his father busy and pre-occupied. He asked his mother to help name the filly, and while in a haze she blurted out the name Wild Grace. The name described his mother -- graceful but a little on the wild side -- so that's what he named her. Hanley asked Brown if he would train her, but not knowing Hanley, he was reluctant. He asked him who her dam was, and when told her name was Gracious Living, who never won a race, Brown said, "Really, I worked with her when I was with Shug McGaughey. Sure, I'll train your horse."
Wild Grace won her first two starts after being put on the grass before being retired, and was in the money in five of her six career starts. That opened the door to one of the great owner-trainer relationships in all of racing and Brown eventually getting the most special filly he's ever trained.
Brown then returned Hanley's gratitude with his own champagne toast: "It's so important to have owners this committed be successful and bring more young people into the game; guys who are willing to have the ups and downs and ride along with you, waiting for a horse like Lady Eli."
But waiting for a horse like this is something Kumin and Hanley no longer will do. For as many top-class horses as they own and will own, they know in their heart they will never again have a horse like Lady Eli. Nor will anyone else.