The crowd watches as Royal Delta sells for $8.5 million at the Keeneland November breeding stock auction.

The crowd watches as Royal Delta sells for $8.5 million at the Keeneland November breeding stock auction.

Joseph DiOrio

Royal Day at Keeneland: 'Delta' Brings $8.5M

Benjamin Leon purchases the 3-year-old daughter of Empire Maker.

Royal Delta brought the second day of the Keeneland November breeding stock auction to an electrifying conclusion when her price soared to $8.5 million in a spectator-packed sale pavilion.

Actually, two more horses did go through the auction ring after the 3-year-old Empire Maker  filly departed to a round of applause Nov. 8 in Lexington. But it was difficult for most people to pay attention to the selling during the session’s closing minutes. They were still discussing how South Florida healthcare magnate Benjamin Leon Jr. determinedly fought off Adena Springs’ Frank Stronach to claim the probable Eclipse Award winner, buying her in name of his Besilu Stables.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; she is the whole package,” said Leon, who plans to keep Royal Delta in training and race her. “My passion is breeding and I can’t think of a better mare to breed in the future than her. But I also cannot think of a better filly to enjoy on the track than her. I think and I hope that she will give a few thrillers to us and all the people who enjoy this sport for as long as she can do that.”

Four days before she was sold, Royal Delta triumphed by 2 1/2 lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Lady’s Classic (gr. I) after winning the TVG Alabama (gr. I) and Black-Eyed Susan (gr. II) stakes earlier this year. Bred and raced by the late Prince Saud bin Khaled’s Palides Investments, the filly was part of the dispersal of his horses at Keeneland, which was conducted by the Saudi Arabia native’s Chanteclair Farm.

Royal Delta’s price was the highest at  Keeneland for a horse since Playful Act brought $10.5 million during the 2007 November auction and was the third-highest ever for the November sale. The amount for the Ladies Classic winner also contributed to a second consecutive day of big gains at this year’s November auction.

Even though the number of lots sold during the session declined 3.5% from 2010 to 138, the gross rose 63.8% to $51,405,000. The average price increased 69.8% to $372,500 while the median price advanced 46.3% to $197,500.

The buy-back rate was 20.7%, up slightly from 19.2% last year.

During the auction’s opening session, Nov. 7, when well-bred stock from the Edward P. Evans’ dispersal went through the sale ring, the gross and median each grew more than 60% and the average increased more than 100%.

“It was a wonderful day across the board,” said Walt Robertson, Keeneland’s vice president of sales, after the second session ended. “It was led by a beautiful consignment that everything worked well for and we topped it with a filly that did every single thing right. I just don’t know what else you could ask for one horse to do. She had family, her dam could run, and she wins the Breeders’ Cup Friday. Of course, she brought a lot of money and she should have.”

The results for the Palides dispersal stock included a gross of $16,813,000 for the 20 horses that sold. Their average was $840,650 and their median was $105,000.

Four of the eight horses that brought $1 million or more apiece on the November auction’s second day were from the Palides contingent.

For the second session in a row at Keeneland, Leon was the biggest spender. After paying $11.4 million for six head Nov. 7, the Besilu owner spent an additional $11 million for three horses during the second session. All were from the Palides dispersal.

In addition to Royal Delta, Leon purchased her weanling half sister by Smart Strike for $1.6 million after losing a bidding battle to Stronach for the Ladies’ Classic winner’s dam, grade III winner Delta Princess (by A.P. Indy). Delta Princess was in foal to Distorted Humor and brought $2.6 million. Leon also acquired a weanling Smoke Glacken – Camargue filly, which is out of an unraced half sister to Delta Princess, for $900,000.

Royal Delta, her sleek dark bay or brown coat covered with dapples, entered the sale ring at 3:40 p.m. (EST), with Keeneland auctioneer Ryan Mahan declaring, “There is royalty,” and departed five minutes later. The fight to own her was brief, but it was furious. The first bid was $2.5 million and the price escalated rapidly.

Sitting near the center of the pavilion, Leon responded quickly to every challenge. At $8.5 million, Mahan asked for $9 million and then tried numerous times to get someone to up the price to $8.7 million. But Stronach made it clear he wasn’t interested, shaking off the request for more. Mahan announced, “The verdict’s in,” before bringing down his hammer.

Heading out of the pavilion, Leon chatted briefly with Royal Delta’s Hall of Fame trainer, Bill Mott.

“She’s a beautiful filly,” the conditioner told Leon.

“Thank you so much,” Leon replied. “I want to talk to you. Do you have a card?”

“No, I don’t,” Mott said.

“Contact me,” Leon said.

“Yes,” Mott replied.

“Please do,”  Leon said.

Mott thanked and congratulated Royal Delta’s new owner, and Leon departed, going into the pavilion’s lobby to talk to the media at the request of a Keeneland staff member. Leon said he hadn’t made a decision about who would condition the filly. He has a strong relationship with multiple Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher and his father, J.J. Pletcher, who have guided him in his fledgling Thoroughbred ventures.

“She will go down now to Florida to our farm,” said Leon of Royal Delta. “I want to keep her there for a couple of weeks. I want to be with her, get to know her, and enjoy her for a few days. Then she can go on to wherever she is going to go to resume training.”

Leon’s wife Silvia was celebrating her birthday, and her husband revealed that Royal Delta was her gift.

“We had a dinner at home in Miami tonight planned and when we found out she (Royal Delta) was near the last (of the session), Silvia was kind enough to call home and cancel the dinner,” Leon said. “In exchange, what I told her is that the filly is a gift from me to her. I hope she thinks it was worth the waiting. It was very sweet of her to do that. This is a gift for her, but when she (Royal Delta) starts having babies, they are for me.”

After the media members finished with Leon, they turned to Mott for his reaction.

“She’s special and there’s something special about being around her,” said Mott of Royal Delta. “She’s such a professional and a very smart, alert, aware filly. It showed in the Alabama and the Breeders’ Cup and it made her turn the lights on the sale ring. It’s fun to be a part of that. It’s great to see that it ended with such a bang, particularly for Mr. Khaled (who died early this year). He would have been very, very proud. He was a proud man, who loved his horses, and she topped it off.”

Royal Delta was offered as a racing or broodmare prospect. She has won five of eight career races and has earned $1,694,000.

Mott also trained 2010 Ladies’ Classic winner Unrivaled Belle, who was the second-highest-priced horse sold during the November sale’s second session, commanding $2.8 million. Betty Moran’s Brushwood Stable purchased the 5-year-old daughter of Unbridled's Song from Eaton Sales, agent for Peter Vesgo and Gary Seidler.

Unrivaled Belle, who is out of the grade II-winning Bertrando mare Queenie Belle, was offered as a racing or broodmare prospect.

The cumulative results for the November sale’s first two sessions included a gross of $114,681,500 for the 285 lots that were sold. The average was $402,391 and the median was $220,000. Compared to last year, the number sold declined 12.6%, but the gross rose 63%. The average and median increased 86.5% and 63%, respectively.

The buy-back rate was 18.8% compared to 19.3% in 2010.

The November sale continues through Nov. 17, with each session beginning at 10 a.m. (EST).