Trainer Bill Mott's champion Royal Delta galloped 1 3/8 miles on Thursday morning over the main track at Santa Anita in preparation for a title defense run in Friday's Breeders' Cup Ladies'.
Mott could set two records if the Besilu Stables' star repeats in the Ladies' Classic -- a third straight victory in the Ladies' Classic and a fifth overall victory in the race. He won with Ajina in 1997 and Escena in 1998 and Unrivaled Belle in 2010.
This year's field may be the deepest in history. In addition to Royal Delta, the race includes two unbeaten champions, My Miss Aurelia and Awesome Feather, and the standouts Grace Hall, Class Included, Questing, Include Me Out and Love and Pride.
"I think it's very competitive," Mott asserted. "You have to respect a lot of the horses in there. It looks like a good, fast pace. And it looks like some horses have speed and good quality. There is no shortage of talent."
Mott trained Royal Delta's granddam and dam, and developed Royal Delta into a superstar in 2011 for breeder-owner Prince Saud bin Khaled, a longtime client. However, the prince died in February 2011 and his racing stable was sold to settle his estate. Royal Delta went to auction the week following her victory in the 2011 Ladies' Classic.
Benjamin Leon purchased the filly for $8.5 million and said he intended to race her in 2012. At that point, all Mott knew was that the talented three-year-old filly was gone.
"I had no expectations of getting her back," he admitted. "It was a sad day when I had to walk her out of my barn down to that van and send her to Keeneland. It was a little bit like I was walking to my best friend's funeral.
"Then I got over to the sale and I guess I got over it. I hung around the sale and everybody was looking at her and I was there when she went through the ring.
"Actually it was quite exciting, knowing that I had been part of it, and I didn't know what was going to happen, who was going to get her, but the more I thought about it, I said, 'she has been good to us.'"
Mott said he bumped into Leon after the filly was purchased and congratulated him on the buy. He said that Leon asked him to call in a week or two.
"I still didn't know," Mott said. "She was at the farm and he (Leon) invited me down. I was going through Ocala and stopped in. At that point, I still didn't know if I was going to get her. He was laughing at me and said, 'We are going to give her to you to train.'
"It was nice. It was great."
Royal Delta has a 3-2-0 record in six starts for Mott this year and is scheduled to remain in training in 2013.
Trainer Chad Brown sent Stronach Stables' unbeaten champion Awesome Feather out for a 1 1/2-mile gallop on the eve of her run in the Ladies' Classic.
The Awesome of Course filly is 10-for-10 in a three-season career that has been interrupted by a tendon injury in her left front leg. Brown said he is looking forward to testing her against Friday's stellar field.
"I feel very good," Brown said. "My filly has been training very well back home. She's come to Santa Anita, been on the track three days in a row, and every day she's looked dynamite out there. I'm optimistic that she's going to come with a big race."
Awesome Feather, her owners and Brown have beaten some long odds to have the filly successfully return to competition at the sport's highest level.
"I'm happy to be part of it," Brown acknowledged. "She's a special horse. She's overcome a lot. Right now, I think she is in the best shape of her career."
Brown said the four-year-old bay is versatile enough to run the race whatever way it develops.
"The great thing about her is that she has speed, she can carry it a long way, and she can adapt to any situation," Brown said. "If there is no speed in the race, she's the kind of horse that can go to the lead. She has no problem with that. If there is a quick pace, she can stalk and rate kindly.
"I think she is posted well (post 5). She should be able to work out a fair trip from there. We'll see how she goes from there."
Brown said the little filly has what it takes to be a standout, but that they aren't obvious to the naked eye.
"If we knew, we'd be 'gazillionaires' picking horses out," the horseman noted. "Sometimes horses just have a certain level of natural talent and courage and competitiveness that you can't quantify. It's hard to measure how much of it she has or where it comes from. She's just one of those rare horses that has it all."
Brown has been around a lot of nice horses as an assistant and since opening his own stable in 2007, but Awesome Feather may be the most popular.
"She has a huge fan base," he explained. "We get letters, horse treats and flowers all the time. It's nice that she has a following. She has terrific owners who have always done the right thing by her and will continue to after she's done racing. It's a great story. I'm very fortunate to have her in my barn. She's just a very, very rare horse. You can breed thousands of horses and not get one like her."
With her back in the Breeders' Cup two years after winning the Juvenile Fillies, Brown and her owners have been rewarded for their patience.
"It's been a pleasure working with her," he said. "It's been frustrating at times not being able to run her as many times as we'd like, but as far as working with her on a daily basis, she's been a pleasure to see every morning when you come to the barn and she's there."
Awesome Feather was purchased by her current connections following her Juvenile Fillies win two years ago. Fellow Ladies' Classic contender Grace Hall will find herself in a similar situation when shipping after Friday's race to Kentucky, where she is consigned at the Fasig-Tipton November sale on Monday.
No matter how Grace Hall fares on Friday, the Ladies' Classic will be bittersweet for everyone affiliated with the barn of trainer Tony Dutrow.
"I hope that whoever buys her will send her back to us," said Carol Fisher, assistant to Dutrow, after she galloped the three-year-old filly one mile and jogged her the same distance on Thursday morning.
Fisher, who flew on the last plane out of New York with Grace Hall, has worked the 2011 Juvenile Fillies runner-up and taken care of her since she arrived in the Dutrow barn as an unraced two-year-old and is very attached to her.
"We've gone everywhere together. She's grown up a lot since she raced in the Juvenile Fillies and has gained a lot of muscle and is a lot more lean," Fisher said. "This morning she was happy to get out on the track (for the first time). She handled it beautifully and wasn't even blowing afterward."
Dutrow and his wife, Kim, were headed to Los Angeles on Thursday on a private plane arranged by retired National Hockey League right wing Keith Jones, who is currently an NBC Sports Network NHL studio analyst and the color man on the Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia broadcasts of the Philadelphia Flyers. Jones owns horses trained by Dutrow, but is not involved in the ownership of Grace Hall.
"Tony and Kim were stuck because of the hurricane. They still couldn't get on a commercial flight. They don't even have power at their home (in New Town, Pennsylvania) yet," Fisher explained. "Keith used his connections to get them hooked up because it was the only way they could get here."
Trainer Todd Pletcher was on hand to supervise the Thursday morning gallop of Green Hills Farm's Love and Pride in advance of the Ladies' Classic after arriving from New York the previous afternoon.
Pletcher said he believes the race is perhaps the most contentious of all the races on the two days of Cup racing.
"It's a very tough race, as deep as any of them," he said. "We're hoping that Love and Pride having raced over the track and being here for three works over the track creates some sort of an advantage for her. Her last two races were very impressive. She beat Royal Delta and It's Tricky in the (Grade 1) Personal Ensign at Saratoga."
Before that race, Love and Pride was an uneventful fourth in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap, so Pletcher decided to make an equipment change. Off came the blinkers that had been used most of her career, and the next two starts were perhaps her two most impressive victories.
"It was more of an experiment," said Pletcher, who then decided to send the A.P. Indy filly to California for the Grade 1 Zenyatta Stakes (formerly Lady's Secret) on September 29.
"The main reason was that we felt she was a two-turn filly, and to stay home and run in the (Grade 1) Beldame at one turn was going to be a disadvantage for her. We were hoping that coming here early, running around two turns and getting to stay here, might create an advantage for her."
Love and Pride, winner of four of her eight starts this season, will get back regular rider John Velazquez for this race. Local jockey Martin Garcia rode her in the Zenyatta.
Friday's Lady's Classic also includes the appropriately named Class Included, who will turn the race into a family affair. The four-year-old bay hasn't followed the typical route to get to the Breeders' Cup, instead coming by way of Hastings Park and Emerald Downs in the Pacific Northwest.
"Is she the best horse we have ever owned and bred? That would be an understatement," said Mike Feuerborn as he and his wife, Amy, watched their Include filly walk the shedrow after her Thursday morning exercise. "We raced her mother (A Classic Life) and had a lot of fun with her, too."
Amy Feuerborn said that she nicknamed A Classic Life "Classy" so the moniker had already been taken when Class Included, who has been tagged with "Blondie" since she was a foal, came along. Still, the couple's first starter in the Breeders' Cup has plenty of quality in her own right.
"That's for sure; big time. This one really is pretty classy, and she fancies up even a little more when you put that purple (Breeders' Cup) saddle towel on her," Amy Feuerborn said.
Kay Cooper, the daughter and assistant to trainer Jim Penney, sent the winner of four consecutive stakes races out for a 1 1/2-mile gallop on Thursday morning and planned to take her back to the paddock before the 4TH race later in the afternoon.
"We spent a lot of time schooling in the paddock (Wednesday) and it was a little chaotic because there were an awful lot of horses in there," she said. "But she performed very well and will school again."
Penny, who has won more titles at the Washington tracks than any other trainer and is enshrined in that state's Thoroughbred Hall of Fame, is semi-retired but will be here for the race.
Former Southern California-based jockey Jeff Cooper, Penny's grandson and Kay's son, also will be in the entourage of more than 30 family and friends flying in from the Northwest.