Lady Eli returns home with vendor John Sikura after $4.2m sale
Brilliant turf runner joins the Hill 'n' Dale Farm broodmare band
While champion Lady Eli lived on his property over the past year, Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm owner John Sikura made the most of the opportunity to observe what he called her indomitable spirit and her innate ability to “command your respect.”
What ensued was a deep and fond admiration, and going into the first session of the Keeneland November sale, Sikura knew he did not want to part with an individual possessing the unique characteristics that fired what became a legendary racing career.
As Lady Eli boldly strode into the Keeneland auction ring as part of the Hill ‘n’ Dale consignment during Monday’s opening session of the November sale, Sikura sauntered down the pavilion’s centre aisle and took a seat to the side. Moments later, he secured the brilliant star, who is in foal to War Front, on a sale-topping bid of $4.2 million so that she could return home with him.
“I’m shocked and pleasantly surprised. I think she’s the best turf mare [in America] in a decade and I think she was exceptionally well bought," a visibly emotional Sikura declared. "It’s a lot of money, time will tell, but I'd have thought she would have made way more money than that and I’m thrilled to own her.
“She had everything. She’s big, a beautiful physical horse. Her courage is beyond reproach. Every time she ran, she ran her eyeballs out,” he said. “We’re thrilled to add her to our broodmare band.
"She’s a mare that was really everything that one could ask for -courage, heart, class, ability, physicality, in foal to a great horse, carrying a colt. It’s a lot of money for a horse, but she was extremely good value.”
Observing the sale while experiencing waves of their own emotions were Lady Eli’s trainer Chad Brown and co-owner Jay Hanley, who bought the daughter of Divine Park for $160,000 at the 2014 Keeneland April sale of two-year-olds in training.
Each said Lady Eli, who won five Grade 1 races and nearly $3m in her racing career, was a horse unlike any other.
“The breeding business isn’t my area, I’m a trainer. But I’m pretty certain that John Sikura made the best buy of the sale there,” Brown declared. “He’s going to be paid back in the years to come for what he did.
“It’s always bittersweet to see them finally sold. I’m just relieved that she's going back to Hill ‘n’ Dale, to a great place,” Brown continued. “I thought she looked incredible here on the sale grounds.
"They’ve obviously taken extremely good care of her, John Sikura and his whole team, and you can tell the affection they have for her back at the barn, which really relieved me. Top-class farm and organisation - I’m just so thrilled that the people who have grown to love her over the last year or so get to keep her.”
Hanley said he felt the same kind of butterflies in the pit of his stomach when Lady Eli entered the ring that he had experienced when she raced, particularly after she defied all odds and overcame laminitis.
“She’s been the best sort of ride we could have ever hoped for. She was the first horse I bought for the partnership with Chad. It’s just been an amazing, amazing ride,” Hanley said. “She is truly a once in a lifetime individual.
“We’re really, really happy that she’s going to stay home and be in Kentucky. We can come and visit her for generations with our kids and that was really one of our underlying goals, to try and achieve that,” he added.
Hanley and partner Sol Kumin entrusted Hill ‘n’ Dale with selling Lady Eli, who had been withdrawn from the 2017 Keeneland November sale after being cut on the legs during a traffic tangle in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
While Hanley, who is not a breeder, said it was a long wait to get the chance to follow through with plans to sell Lady Eli at auction, he said all went without problems.
“She was in the capable hands of John. He put her in foal to War Front, which is always a little bit of a process, but it went very smoothly, and this feels like kind of the last chapter of what has been a really, really amazing novel,” Hanley said. “All in all, it’s a very good sale for us.”
Looking to the future, Sikura said he had no plans yet for Lady Eli’s second mating or whether he might take on partners in her ownership. However, he said she is the ideal type of mare to help keep Hill ‘n’ Dale at the forefront of the North American commercial marketplace.
“She’s an elite mare, and we want to keep trying to accumulate elite mares so we can sell elite commercial yearlings. This is a good place to start when you buy champions,” Sikura said. "We’re very happy and excited.”
Sikura described the six-year-old Lady Eli as a mare with a “no-nonsense approach” who just “tolerates people.”
During her racing career, Brown and his staff put orange traffic cones outside her stall to warn visitors not to get too close to her sharp teeth.
“She knows she’s special,” Sikura said.
For Brown, the sale elicited some fatherly feelings of pride along with the bittersweet aspect of saying farewell to his stars. He said he felt like a college coach watching his best players being drafted for professional careers as he watched a number of his charges, including Grade 1 winners A Raving Beauty and Fourstar Crook, sell at Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland.
“I’ll follow their careers and hopefully get to train some of their offspring. If they’re in the marketplace, I’ll surely be bidding on them,” Brown said.
While both the trainer and Hanley know they may never again see the likes of Lady Eli, she is an inspiration to keep them seeking the next champion. Hanley said he already has pledged some of the sale proceeds from Lady Eli for acquiring new young stock.
“I think it’s safe to say the money is going to be back in the game,” he said with a laugh.
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