by TERESA GENARO

When Jay Hanley met Sol Kumin at a cocktail party on Nantucket several years ago, the talk quickly turned to horse racing, the former having grown up going to the track, the latter knowing nothing about it.

Intrigued, Kumin proposed creating a partnership to buy some horses, an idea about which Hanley was enthusiastic, with one stipulation.

“I said, ‘As long as I can manage the partnership and make the decisions, at least at first, until you get educated about the sport,’” Hanley related.

Kumin agreed, a pretty good call on his part, considering that the first horse that Hanley purchased for the new partnership was the undefeated Lady Eli.

“She immediately stood out,” said Hanley of the filly he purchased as a two-year-old at the 2014 April sale at Keeneland. “Physically, she was just off the charts. She was a two-year-old filly and she looked like a three-year-old colt.”

Hanley was talking this week a few days before he’s scheduled to come watch Lady Eli breeze in preparation for the Ballston Spa at Saratoga on Aug. 27, her first race since getting injured after winning the Grade I Belmont Oaks Invitational in July 2015. After stepping on a nail on her way back to the barn after the race, she developed laminitis in her two front feet, her prognosis and chances of survival initially uncertain.

“We were devastated and we thought a couple of times that she wouldn’t make it,” acknowledged Hanley. “I was so depressed. I had a new baby at the time, and my wife was crazy because I was always crying about Lady Eli.

“Then she stabilized and we just held our breath. And then it was euphoria because she was still alive.”

Known for her feistiness—and that’s putting it mildly, as she’s got a cone in front of her stall to prevent people from getting too close—she brought to her recovery the same determination that she brings to her racing, according to her owner. He also thinks that, given her proclivity for making clear what she does and does not want to do, she’s ready and willing to return to the track.

“Her attitude has always been, ‘Get off me, get away from me, don’t be near me,’” he said. “That translates into, ‘I want to be in front of you all—I want to lead this pack.’ I think that her first race is her most remarkable for that reason. Just in the last 100 yards she made up three lengths on the winner—she showed that determination and she won by a nose.”

“There’s no forcing her to do anything,” he went on. “She wants to run. I watched her breeze last Sunday, and she wants to lead that pack again.”

Her comeback story, he said, as much about trainer Chad Brown, his staff, and the veterinarians who treated her as it is about the filly herself. He spoke with sadness about the death of Robert Agne, the vet who was killed riding his bike last summer, and with warmth and gratitude about the barn staff who worked with Lady Eli last summer when she was at Belmont.

“Cherie [DeVaux, Brown’s assistant] has this magic horse whisperer thing going on with Lady Eli, and for us, that meant the world. Cherie was really there for her, and so was Chad and the rest of the staff,” he said. “I’m not sure that I’d have gotten that from a lot of other trainers, but we got it from Chad. He really cares about her.”

Hanley’s priority has always been her survival, not getting her back to the races, and he trusts that his trainer wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize her health, though he admits  to some nervousness as he watches her progress.

“I’m holding my breath again,” he said. “And if she does race again, I feel like she deserves a standing ovation from every person who sees her, even if she finishes last, just for being her.”

Hanley and his partners have fielded multiple offers for his superstar filly, none of which they seriously considered. What she has been through makes it all the harder for him to consider parting with her.

“We just never felt compelled to sell her,” he said. “And then once we knew she was going to live, I knew I wanted to shepherd her through the rest of what her career is going to be. My emotional decision is that I’d never sell her. I’d put her in my backyard so she’d be right near me for the rest of our lives.”

Photo courtesy NYRA/Coglianese Photography