To this day, the memories still make Bill Mott chuckle, recalling times when the simple task of trying to clip Royal Delta's bridle path would be met with defiance—instances when he and his staff were confronted with the attitude that made the champion mare an overwhelming force.
"She was just a big, gorgeous, strong filly with an attitude like a colt," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "You weren't going to make her do something she didn't want to do. She was just aggressive and tough, but really pretty much in a good way."
Having delivered three Eclipse Awards, two Breeders' Cup triumphs, and a sale-topping display of fireworks during her racing days, Royal Delta earned the right to special treatment. Hers was a rare kind of enduring impression, which makes the void from her passing all the more vast.
The Thoroughbred racing community awoke to somber news Feb. 10 when Besilu Stables announced its champion distaffer died at age 9 earlier in the week due to complications while foaling a filly by Galileo at Coolmore Ireland. The filly is reported to be doing well.
Retired in November of 2013, Royal Delta was sent to Ireland to be bred to Galileo during the 2014 breeding season, but she did not get in foal. Another attempt was made the following year, again to Galileo, and she aborted the foal. The same mating in 2016 resulted in the surviving bay filly of 2017.
"It's a tough loss for everybody and for us," said Fabricio Buffolo, bloodstock manager for Benjamin Leon's Besilu Stables. "Fortunately she had a filly that survived and is doing well. But those things happen with the foaling and ... you can't do anything. It's very tough.
"We tried everything. She went to the clinic but it all happened very quickly. Unfortunately it was just very unlucky."
Bred in Kentucky by Palides Investments N.V., Inc., the nom de course of the late Prince Saud bin Khaled, Royal Delta was the rare talent that dropped jaws in her first race and kept raising the bar from there. After breaking her maiden by 12 lengths at first asking in her lone start as a 2-year-old in 2010, the daughter of Empire Maker went on to become an Eclipse Award winner at ages 3, 4, and 5, winning 12 of 22 starts, including six grade 1 contests.
Her first graded score came in the 2011 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (G2), a victory that preceded her breakout triumph in that year's TVG Alabama Stakes (G1). After finishing second to eventual Horse of the Year Havre de Grace in the Beldame Invitational Stakes (G1) that October, Royal Delta successfully took down older girls in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs, winning by 2 1/2 lengths to seal the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old filly.
"She kept impressing us at different times in her career," Mott said. "There were a couple of races where she literally won off by open lengths and just did it with such ease.
"She was always a bit special to me, number one, because I trained for her breeder and he was a good friend of mine, and the fact that I had trained her mother (Delta Princess) and also for a short period of time had trained her grandmother (Lyphard's Delta). When she won the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs, I can't believe I was lucky enough to get her back in the barn after she went through the sale."
Royal Delta made headlines again days after that first Breeders' Cup triumph, this time when she arrived at the 2011 Keeneland November breeding stock sale as part of the late Saud bin Khaled's Palides Investments dispersal and sold to Leon for $8.5 million, the third highest price ever for a racemare or broodmare prospect at the November event.
Kept in training and returned to Mott for her 4-year-old season, Royal Delta won four graded stakes in 2012 including her title defense triumph in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic where—showing a new dimension to her previous stalk-and-pounce style— she broke like a shot and led every point of call en route to a 1 1/2-length triumph and another Eclipse Award, this time for champion older female.
"Mr. Leon gave me a very special opportunity. However, it came along at that time with a little added pressure as he purchased her for a lot of money," Mott said. "When they change hands, there is a little pressure to do it all over again. Royal Delta did her part and she did it two more years in a row. We got lucky to have her in the first place and we were very fortunate she reproduced her form as a 4 and 5-year-old."
Leon was sporting enough to bring Royal Delta back for a 5-year-old campaign and was rewarded with more displays of excellence. After returning from her second try in the $10 million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1), Royal Delta went on to post victories in the 2013 Delaware Handicap (G1) and Personal Ensign Handicap (G1) before being bested by Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) heroine Princess of Sylmar in the Beldame. She ultimately handed her torch over to another future Hall of Famer when she finished fourth to champion Beholder in that year's Breeders' Cup Distaff.
She had done enough still to claim another Eclipse Award for champion older female, and retired with $4,811,126 in earnings.
"I've had many great moments in my life but they and pleasure that Royal Delta has brought to me and my family is indescribable," Leon said. "She offered us the opportunity to enjoy wonderful places, people, and experiences. She was a gift that allowed us many thrilling moments, and we will be forever grateful."
Royal Delta was out of the graded stakes-winning A.P. Indy mare Delta Princess, who was euthanized due to a degenerative stifle condition in 2014, and was a half sister to grade 1 winner Crown Queen, who is currently at Coolmore Ireland slated to be bred to Galileo this year, according to Buffolo.
"She was as sound the day she left the racetrack as she was the day she came to the racetrack," Mott said of Royal Delta. "She was just a real solid, durable type of horse. It's very difficult to find that kind. It's difficult to be lucky enough to get one like that once in a lifetime."