Besilu Stables' Royal Delta headlines the $750,000 Delaware Handicap (gr. II) at Delaware Park July 21, but the champion filly will have to fend off an old nemesis in Awesome Maria, who beat her earlier this year in the Sabin Stakes (gr. III).
Those two top a field of seven entered in the 1 1/4-mile test for older fillies and mares, a "Win and You're In" Breeders' Cup Challenge with the winner automatically qualifying for the Ladies' Classic (gr. I) Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park. The Delaware Handicap is the featured 10th race with an approximate post time of 5:45 p.m. EDT.
Last time out, Royal Delta returned to the form that saw her win an Eclipse Award as the champion 3-year-old filly of 2011 when she posted an eight-length triumph going 1 1/8 miles in the June 16 Fleur de Lis Handicap (gr. II) at Churchill Downs. Her final time for the distance was 1:49.49, faster than stablemate Ron The Greek's victory over the same ground in 1:50.51 the same night in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I).
Her other two outings this year for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott were the Sabin loss Feb. 25 at Gulfstream Park and a disappointing ninth against males in the March 31 Emirates Air Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) at Meydan.
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith picked up the mount on the 4-year-old daughter of Empire Maker for the Fleur de Lis, and returns to ride the 7-5 morning line favorite from the rail.
"She is more talented than I already knew she was, to be honest with you," Smith remarked. "She ran about a second and a half faster than the boys that night. She was very impressive. She did it fairly easy that night. She relaxed really well for me and when I asked her to pick it up, she just jumped through the bridle and drew away."
Smith is not worried about Royal Delta getting the mile and a quarter; last year she won the TVG Alabama Stakes (gr. I) going the same distance at Saratoga Race Course by 5 1/2 lengths. He's more concerned with meeting Awesome Maria again.
"She's a really nice mare in her own right, she's already shown that," Smith said. "I don't believe Royal Delta ran her best race that day, but she is certainly going to have to bring her 'A' game."
Awesome Maria is looking to bounce back off a non-threatening third as the heavy favorite in the 1 1/16-mile Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont Park May 28; that race was won by It's Tricky. Previously, the 5-year-old daughter of Maria's Mon had been riding a six-race win streak against graded company for E. Paul Robsham Stables.
"She's had really good training periods since the Ogden Phipps," trainer Todd Pletcher remarked. "This time everything has kind of gone according to plan. We haven't had to juggle our works schedule around rain and such, and we've gotten to do exactly what we want to do. I thought her last two breezes were exceptional and she is touting us like she is ready to go down there and perform to her capabilities, which she would certainly need to do against a filly the quality of Royal Delta."
Jockey Ramon Dominguez will fly in to ride Awesome Maria from post 6. She's 9-5 on the morning line.
Pletcher seeks his fifth Delaware Handicap victory and would set the record for most wins in the race if Awesome Maria got the job done. His previous Del 'Cap winners were Life At Ten (2010), Unbridled Belle (2007), Fleet Indian (2006) and Irving's Baby (2001). Henry Clark won the Delaware Handicap four times with Christiana Stable's Endine in 1958 and 1959 and Obeah in 1969 and 1970.
Pletcher has doubled his chances of victory by entering Green Hills Farm's Love and Pride. In her most recent, the 4-year-old daughter of A.P. Indy notched a 1 3/4-length score going wire-to-wire in the local prep, the 1 1/8-mile Obeah Stakes (gr. III) June 16.
"The Obeah Stakes is a prep we have used successfully for the Delaware Handicap a number of times," Pletcher said. "I believe Fleet Indian, Unbridled Belle and Irving's Baby all used the Obeah as a prep for the Del 'Cap and were successful. Love and Pride is a filly that had some success at Delaware last year, so she seems to like the surface. The real key with her is the added furlong, but the fact that she has been good at Delaware before give us reason to have optimism that may be she can handled the added distance."
Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence's Cash for Clunkers was a game second in the Ogden Phipps, and gave It's Tricky a resolute battle down the stretch before just yielding in the final furlongs. Trained by Rick Violette, the daughter of Tiznow was making her graded stakes debut off three straight wire-to-wire romps by a combined 20-length margin.
Flaxman Holdings' Pachattack, sixth last time out in the Edward P. Evans All Along Stakes (gr. IIIT), will make her first return to dirt since a third-place finish in the Ladies' Classic last year. The daughter of Pulpit won the 1 1/16-mile Doubledogdare Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland on Polytrack April 20 in her first start of 2012 and first race for Flaxman Holdings and trainer Graham Motion. The Niarchos family purchased her under the name of one of their racing entities for $1.2 million from the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Mixed Sale.
It was in 2011 that then-trainer Gerard Butler first tried her on the dirt with positive results, a runner-up finish in the 1 1/4-mile Personal Ensign Invitational (gr. I) at Saratoga.
Cresran's grade III winner Tiz Miz Sue was runner-up in the Obeah by 1 3/4 lengths for trainer Steve Hobby last time out. David and Margaret Wimer's Daring Reality, third in the June 30 Lighthouse Stakes at Monmouth Park and seeking her first graded stakes win for trainer Cathal Lynch, completes the field.
$750,000 Delaware Handicap (gr. II, Race 10, 5:45 p.m.), Fillies & Mares 3 & Up, 1 1/4 Miles
PP., Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1. Royal Delta (KY), M.E. Smith, 124, W L Mott, 7-5
2. Tiz Miz Sue (KY), J. Rocco Jr., 114, S Hobby, 12-1
3. Cash for Clunkers (KY), 114, R A Violette Jr., 8-1
4. Daring Reality (KY), Jockey TBA, 112, C A Lynch, 15-1
5. Pachattack (KY), Jockey TBA, 118, H G Motion, 6-1
6. Awesome Maria (KY), R.A. Dominguez, 121, T A Pletcher, 9-5
7. Love and Pride (KY), J. Rose, 115, T A Pletcher, 10-1