Looking more powerful than ever, two-time champion Royal Delta tuned up for a possible return trip to the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) with an easy five-length victory in the $98,000 Sabin Stakes (gr. III) Feb. 17 at Gulfstream Park (VIDEO).
The Sabin was a race Royal Delta lost last year by eight lengths to Awesome Maria, and it was followed by her lackluster ninth-place showing in the World Cup. But trainer Bill Mott warned before this year's Sabin that Besilu Stables' 5-year-old daughter of Empire Maker would be a more imposing runner this time around.
Royal Delta was making her first appearance since leading throughout en route to a 1 1/2-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (gr. I) Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park. That victory wrapped up a second Eclipse Award for Royal Delta, who won four of her last five starts in 2012 to be named champion older mare.
Facing four opponents, Royal Delta was timed in 1:43.31 on a fast main track in the 1 1/16-mile Sabin as the 2-5 choice. Alpha Delta Stables' grade I winner Grace Hall, bet down to 2-1, was the main challenger but was never seriously involved.
Mott won three graded stakes over the weekend at Gulfstream including Amira's Prince in the Mac Diarmida (gr. IIT) and Starformer in The Very One (gr. IIIT) Feb. 16. He admitted he was holding his breath until Royal Delta crossed the finish line.
"A sigh of relief. I'm glad it's over," Mott said. "I'm happy the way everything went coming in. She came into the race great. She worked well. Obviously, we have more to do, but it's a great way to start.
"I've seen horses that were 1-9 and didn't perform that way. It's good to see her continue on the same path."
Mott said Royal Delta is scheduled to leave for Dubai March 17 to run in the $10 million Dubai World Cup March 30.
"I want to get her there and do as well going into the race as she did last year," Mott said. "If she can do that we'll be in OK shape. We're going to run against some of the best horses in the world. This is not going to be an easy task. It's a tough journey and a very tough race.
"We're going to be racing against horses that have been training there since October, November. Some of those horses are already acclimated. I think with a good trip she can make a good show of it."
Ridden by Mike Smith, Royal Delta hopped slightly at the start of the Sabin and was a bit slow into stride as All for Thee and Jose Lezcano took the lead into the close clubhouse turn. Royal Delta, between horses early, cruised up on the outside of All for Thee coming out of the turn after an opening quarter-mile split of :24.06.
Royal Delta showed the way narrowly down the backstretch while clipping off a half-mile in :47.44, then shook free by 2 1/2 lengths as she completed six furlongs in 1:11.54.
Smith allowed Royal Delta to go on with it rounding the far bend as All for Thee struggled to cling to her. However, the champ was in command under a chilly ride through the stretch, widening her advantage without urging in the final furlong.
"She wasn't the best coming out of the gate, but it was her first start in a while and I was able to stay on," said Smith, who became the regular rider of Royal Delta after last year's World Cup. "Bill said he's going to work with her a lot more in the gate, so I'm sure she'll be better in her next race.
"It's just so exciting to have her back. She's such a special horse and to have her back again is great."
Royal Delta posted her 10th win in 16 lifetime starts while increasing her earnings to $3,763,851. The dark bay mare was purchased for $8.5 million by Ben Leon's Besilu Stables at the 2011 Keeneland November breeding stock sale, just days after she captured her first Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic at Churchill Downs to lock up 3-year-old filly Eclipse honors.
"She's amazing. She's so special," Leon said. "She never seems to stop amusing all of us. She makes things like this look so easy when we all know it's not easy. She looks great and more fit than I've ever know her (to be)."
The late Prince Saud bin Khaled’s Palides Investments bred Royal Delta, who is out of the multiple graded-stakes winner Delta Princess, by A.P. Indy.
During the 2012 campaign, Royal Delta won four of seven starts with two seconds including a 9 1/2-length romp in the Beldame Invitational (gr. I) at Belmont Park prior to her second Breeders' Cup triumph. She has been training for her return at Payson Park.
"I think she was working a little bit better this year," Mott said. "I think she was a little stronger. When she came out of the Breeders' Cup, she didn't have to go through a sale. People probably don't realize how much of a toll going through a sale two days after a race can take.
"She was tired after that I think. She lightened up and lost some weight from it. She's more mature now and filled out better."
Carrying top weight of 123 pounds, Royal Delta paid $2.80, $2.20, $2.10. All for Thee returned $5.80 and $2.40 while rounding out a $13 exacta. Grace Hall paid $2.10 to show in her first start since finishing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic.
"It' has been a great weekend," said Mott, who in addition to his stakes victories also won two races at Aqueduct Racetrack Feb. 17 and found a new handicap prospect in Cigar Street, who took an allowance race at Gulfstream prior to Royal Delta's run. "I've had weekends that have been as good probably, but it doesn't happen that often."