Last year at Saratoga Race Course, Royal Delta bolstered her Eclipse Award credentials with a 5 1/2-length win in the Alabama Stakes (gr. I) before going on to sew up honors as the outstanding 3-year-old filly of 2011 with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (gr. I) at Churchill Downs.
On Aug. 26, the 4-year-old daughter of Empire Maker will make her first start at the Spa since the Alabama when she carries high weight of 124 pounds in the $600,000 Personal Ensign Invitational Handicap (gr. I), a 1 1/8-mile race for fillies and mares.
"We're happy to give Royal Delta another chance back in Saratoga, where she won the Alabama," said Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. "She seems to be doing fine here, and we hope she repeats from a year ago."
The Personal Ensign, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" race for the Ladies' Classic, could serve as the fourth meeting between Royal Delta and It's Tricky and the first match between the two in 2012. In 2011, Royal Delta was third to It's Tricky in the TVG Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I). Royal Delta defeated It's Tricky in both the Alabama and the Ladies' Classic.
After Royal Delta won the Ladies' Classic, Benjamin Leon Jr. of Besilu Stables purchased the future champion for $8.5 million at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale. In her Besilu debut, she chased Awesome Maria to finish a distant second in the Sabin (gr. III) in February at Gulfstream Park, then was ninth against males in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) in March.
The intercontinental sojourn seemed to take nothing out of the star runner, who blitzed her opponents by eight lengths in the Fleur de Lis (gr. II) in June at Churchill. She had to work harder in her most recent start, moving into a fast pace set by Love and Pride and then staving off a late challenge from Tiz Miz Sue to win the July 21 Delaware Handicap (gr. II) by a neck. Both Tiz Miz Sue and Love and Pride have been entered back in the Personal Ensign.
"She had to work at it in the Delaware Handicap, without a doubt," said Mott. "She had to work early and hang on late. With the difference in weight (nine pounds) she gave to the second horse, she ran quite well. She's doing well and she's proven in the past she can run well over this racetrack. She's high weight, and I suppose she deserves to be."
Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith has the assignment aboard Royal Delta, the 4-5 favorite, from post 4.
It's Tricky had also been entered in the Aug. 24 Ballerina (gr. I) at seven furlongs, but late in the afternoon of Aug. 23 trainer Kiaran McLaughlin texted that It's Tricky would go in the Personal Ensign. The trainer had said the Personal Ensign was the likely spot for the Mineshaft runner, but added he needed to discuss the matter with Godolphin's racing manager, Simon Crisford.
It's Tricky, 2-1 morning-line second choice for the Personal Ensign, is unbeaten in three starts this year, opening her 4-year-old season with a pair of wins at Aqueduct Racetrack: a 2 3/4-length triumph over Love and Pride in the Top Flight Handicap (gr. II) in March and a 3 1/2-length score cutting back in distance in the Distaff Handicap (gr. II) in April.
She is unraced since she wore down Cash for Clunkers to take the May 28 Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I) by three-quarters of a length at Belmont Park, but has trained steadily at Belmont and the Greentree Training Center adjacent to Saratoga since that race.
"We have her coming back at 1 1/8 miles, and she hasn't raced in three months," noted McLaughlin. "Hopefully we'll have her tight enough. She's training well and is coming into the race in great shape. We're ready to go."
It's Tricky, who usually stalks the pace, drew post 1, directly inside front-runners Brushed by a Star and Love and Pride.
"We might have a slight pace edge over Royal Delta," said McLaughlin. "Being that we're in the one hole, we'll be forwardly placed. There will probably be one or two outside who will go out and clear us. We'll see if they can. We'll let (jockey) Eddie (Castro) sort it out."
Despite the formidable presence of Royal Delta and It's Tricky, McLaughlin did not want to concede the Personal Ensign to the favorites as it also drew Tiz Miz Sue and Love and Pride, second and fourth in the Delaware Handicap; and Brushed by a Star and R Gypsy Gold, first and third in the Molly Pitcher (gr. II).
"Royal Delta and It's Tricky are the two most accomplished runners in the field, but there are some other nice fillies in there," said McLaughlin.
Tiz Miz Sue, by Tiznow , seeks her first win since a three-length decision in the Azeri (gr. III) in March at Oaklawn Park for Cresran. Since that race, she has finished third in Oaklawn's Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) in April and second in both the Obeah (gr. III) in June and the Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park.
In the Del 'Cap, Tiz Miz Sue raced in fifth through six furlongs, came to Royal Delta's flank in the stretch, and could get no closer than a neck to the eventual winner.
"She ran a huge race; that's all there is to it," trainer Steve Hobby said of the 5-year-old mare's performance. "She was training well, and we got nine pounds from Royal Delta in the Delaware Handicap."
That spread will remain as Tiz Miz Sue was assigned 115 for the Personal Ensign. She'll leave from post 6 with Joseph Rocco Jr. aboard at 6-1 on the morning line.
Love and Pride, owned by Green Hills Farm, led at every call to defeat Tiz Miz Sue by 1 3/4 lengths in the Obeah but faded to fourth after cutting blazing fractions of :45.70 and 1:09.80 in the Del 'Cap. Trainer Todd Pletcher hopes the 4-year-old A.P. Indy filly, who will race with blinkers off in the Personal Ensign, will ration her speed better this time out.
"We're definitely not going to do that again," said Pletcher of the fast pace Love and Pride set last time. "It's a tall order, but she has run well here in the past. We're taking a shot. She's doing very well at the moment. Who knows what might happen at Saratoga."
John Velazquez takes over on Love and Pride, 12-1; she drew post 3 and was assigned 114 pounds.
Team Forster's Brushed by a Star also figures to be prominent early, having employed front-running tactics to win her past three starts, including an 11-length victory in the Iowa Distaff at Prairie Meadows in June and a 1 1/2-length victory in the July 29 Molly Pitcher (gr. II) at Monmouth Park.
"Other horses may be quicker from the gate, but she comes out of the turn and is on top," said trainer Grant Forster. "Hopefully, she can continue to keep going up, up, up. We're going way up this time. She always hinted at being a lot better. She's obviously trained strong and her confidence is sky-high."
The 4-year-old Eddington filly will tote 118 pounds, including Corey Nakatani, from post 2 as the 15-1 choice on the morning line.
E. Paul Robsham Stables' R Gypsy Gold, also trained by Pletcher, won the second stakes of her career when she landed the Endear July 4 at Belmont Park, her final start prior to the Molly Pitcher, in which she rallied on the rail to finish third, beaten 1 1/2 lengths.
"We'll let her settle and make one run," said Pletcher of the 4-year-old daughter of Bernardini . "We hope she'll keep coming. Her last couple of races have been very good. She ran a sneaky-good race in the Molly Pitcher and was probably stuck on the worst part of the racetrack."
Javier Castellano will ride R Gypsy Gold, 15-1 and assigned 115 pounds, from post 5.
$600,000 Personal Ensign Invitational Handicap (gr. I, Race 10, 5:56 p.m.), Fillies & Mares 3 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles
PP., Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, Odds
1. It's Tricky (KY), E. Castro, 123, K P McLaughlin, 2-1
2. Brushed by a Star (KY), C. S. Nakatani, 118, G T Forster, 15-1
3. Love and Pride (KY), J. Velazquez, 114, T A Pletcher, 12-1
4. Royal Delta (KY), M. E. Smith, 124, W I Mott, 4-5
5. R Gypsy Gold (KY), J. Castellano, 115, T A Pletcher, 15-1
6. Tiz Miz Sue (KY), J. Rocco, Jr., 115, S Hobby, 6-1