Besilu Stable's Royal Delta proved herself a true champion on Friday when successfully defending her title in the Grade 1, $1,818,000 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic at Santa Anita Park despite being taken out of her usual game.
"Spectacular," trainer Bill Mott stated. "She broke sharply and was out on the lead and just ran the race that way. She's a talented mare to be able to run well and win no matter how the race develops. I was a little concerned when they were throwing up those fractions, but she kept going and ran them off their feet."
Three-year-old Questing, the expected pacesetter in the 1 1/4-mile contest, broke slow and immediately fell to the back of the eight-distaffer field before being pulled up and vanned off. Jockey Mike Smith didn't panic as the normally rallying Royal Delta moved up to take command entering the turn. The dark bay filly led the way in :22 3/5, :45 4/5 and 1:09 4/5 while Love and Pride stalked to her outside.
Entering the stretch, Love and Pride began to fade and was easily swamped by first Include Me Out and then My Miss Aurelia. All the while Royal Delta kept motoring on the front end while saving ground on the rail. My Miss Aurelia loomed large in the lane but could never catch the relentless Royal Delta, who completed 1 1/8 miles on the fast main track in 1:48 4/5.
"She jumped extremely well today and her best races are whenever you can let her do her thing, let her get into her stride and normally that's laying a bit off the pace," Smith said. "She broke so well today. Johnny Lopez, the man that had me in the gate, did a great job with her. He had her standing great and when you have a mare with a stride that she has and as talented as she is the best thing to do is stay out of her way and that's what I did. We were cruising right along but she was doing well within herself."
Smith is no stranger to the Ladies' Classic winner's circle, guiding 2010 Horse of the Year and three-time champion Zenyatta there in 2008, one year before she took the Classic.
"She has that kind of stride," Smith remarked when asked to compare Royal Delta to Zenyatta. "She has a tremendous stride. She does it with ease. I told Bill I was going :48 out there, and he said I think you went :45 and I looked at the clock and I was like, 'Wow!'
"That's how easy she does things, she has no wasted action, everything moves so fluidly. She actually waits for competition, and once they get to her she locks on them and seems like she can get around them again."
Royal Delta handed Smith a prize of his own in addition to rewarding her many backers with payouts of $5.40, $3.60 and $2.60 as the 8-5 favorite.
"It's incredible to be with the riders on this list; truly an honor," Smith said after recording his 16th Breeders' Cup victory to becoming the winningest rider in the series. "I hope to be around a few more years to add to it.
"I really had a lot of confidence in her. She trains the way that she ran. Just amazing," he added.
My Miss Aurelia was game to finish 1 1/2 lengths behind Royal Delta in second while suffering her first loss in seven races. Winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, and subsequently named champion two-year-old filly off that score, the Smart Strike sophomore entered the Ladies' Classic owning just two starts this year -- a three-length win in the Mandys Gold and a head score in the Grade 1 Cotillion.
"I hate that she didn't win, but I just love this filly. She never blinks. I wish she could have won, but it was a beautiful race," trainer Steve Asmussen praised My Miss Aurelia.
"My filly ran a hell of a race," jockey Corey Nakatani agreed. "I wasn't surprised to see Mike on the lead. I was in good position the whole way. She gave me everything, and I thought I had a shot there for a while. Congratulations to Bill Mott; he has a great horse. But I was on a great one, too."
Include Me Out finished another 1 1/4 lengths back in third and was followed under the wire by Grace Hall, Love and Pride, Awesome Feather and Class Included.
"I was never comfortable," trainer Chad Brown admitted about champion Awesome Feather's effort. "In a race like this, a quarter of a mile in, and I'm not comfortable with the way my horse is moving, I'm in trouble.
"Not to make any excuses, but she probably didn't care for the surface today. She's much better than that. I can see her getting beat; it's a star-studded field. But she was never really in the race and that's not like her. She's been in every race she's ever been in. She's been there, somewhere up front. The jockey felt the same way. We'll have to regroup."
"She was just never comfortable today," jockey Jeffrey Sanchez concurred. "At the three-eighths pole I asked her and she didn't really want to go. She never got into the bit and usually she does."
Questing was reportedly doing fine following the race despite being vanned off.
"She's fine. She never was traveling well. She was never in the bridle, so (jockey) Irad (Ortiz Jr.) just pulled her up," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin updated Questing's condition. "She got on the van sound, got off the van sound; she just didn't feel like running today. We'll have her scoped to make sure everything else is OK. We're disappointed, but we had a great year with her."
"She didn't even want to run today. She never tried. I think she'll be OK, she just didn't try," Ortiz explained.
"There were no obvious abnormalities. In other words she had no injury to her limbs on veterinarian inspection," Dr. Wayne McIlwraith confirmed.
Royal Delta wrapped up her four-year-old campaign in style in the Ladies' Classic, taking four of seven races while placing in two others this season. The Empire Maker filly's only off-the-board placing came when trying the synthetic Tapeta at Meydan in the Group 1 Dubai World Cup in late March.
That race followed Royal Delta's season-opening second in the Grade 3 Sabin, and the dark bay was given plenty of time to recover from her overseas experience before running in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 16, which she won by eight lengths.
Following a gutsy neck score in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap, where she conceded nine pounds to runner-up Tiz Miz Sue, Royal Delta was upset by Love and Pride in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Handicap at Saratoga. Washy in the post parade, she missed by only a half-length but never looked a serious threat to win during the stretch run.
The dark bay lass quickly rebounded last out with a 9 1/2-length romp in the Grade 1 Beldame Invitational, a race she finished second in last year to eventual Horse of the Year Havre de Grace. With a second Ladies' Classic win, Royal Delta joins the great Bayakoa as the only two-time winner of the race. She also moved herself firmly in contention for Horse of the Year honors, which also hinges on Saturday's result in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"The decision was very much influenced by Mr. Mott, and we always thought that she would always run in the Ladies', but we had the option of pre-registering her for the Classic, which we did, in case things happened and we changed our minds," Benjamin Leon of Besilu Stables explained in regards to Royal Delta being pre-entered to both the Classic and Ladies' Classic. "The original decision was to have her run in the Ladies' Classic, which she did.
"Our plan is to run her for next year," he added. "Our intention is to take her to Dubai to give her one more shot with Mike Smith in order to become the world champ at the Dubai World Cup and we will take it one day at a time and make decisions after that World Cup."
"She has to remain healthy and we've got big plans for her, but, I don't know, if there is ever a filly that you could shoot for the moon with I would say it would probably be one like her," Mott remarked.
Royal Delta earned an Eclipse Award in 2011 by going 4-1-1 from seven starts, including wins in the Ladies' Classic, Grade 1 Alabama and Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan, while placing in the Beldame and Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. Her career mark now stands at 15-9-3-1, $3,703.851.
Royal Delta was campaigned by her breeder, Palides Investments N.V. Inc., through last year's Breeders' Cup triumph then passed through the sales ring for the first time just three days after that score. She sold for a sale-topping $8.5 million at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale to Benjamin Leon's Besilu Stables, which was the most ever paid for a horse in training at Keeneland November and the most paid for any horse at the sale since broodmare Playful Act brought $10.5 million in 2007.
The previous Keeneland record for a horse in training was the $6.1 million paid by Aaron Jones for the graded stakes-winning colt Half Ours in 2006.
The Kentucky-bred Royal Delta descends from a black-type rich family as a daughter of the A.P. Indy mare Delta Princess. That one would capture six stakes, including three Grade 3 contests, during her time on track while racking up nearly $750,000 in earnings. Royal Delta's second dam is Group 2 victress Lyphard's Delta, who would go on in the breeding shed to produce Grade/Group 1 winners Biondetti and Indy Five Hundred.
Lyphard's Delta is herself a daughter of Proud Delta, who was honored as champion older female in 1976, and counts as a full brother Grade 3 hero and sire Proud Debonair.
Royal Delta has a three-year-old full brother named Empire Way, whose best achievement to date is a second to dual classic winner I'll Have Another in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis.