ARCADIA, Calif. — The thing about holding a mantle of leadership for an extended period is there inevitably will be some dynamic youngsters seeking the role of successor.
As champion Royal Delta attempts what would be a record third straight win in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff on Friday, the veteran queen of the division has conceded some pre-race hype to a couple sassy girls making a power play, including one that has already knocked her crown ajar.
While the quality of this year's crop of 3-year-old males continues to be debated, the sophomore fillies have proven even better than previously touted and stand as the most formidable threats to Royal Delta's reign in the 11⁄8-mile Distaff at Santa Anita Park.
Kentucky Oaks winner Princess of Sylmar holds the distinction of being the "it" girl of the six-horse Distaff field. Princess of Sylmar defeated 5-year-old Royal Delta by 2 lengths in the Grade I Beldame Stakes on Sept. 28, a win that convinced owner Ed Stanco to abandon previous plans to end her season after that race and instead take a swing at huge year-end honors with a potential Distaff win.
Champion Beholder, winner of the 2012 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and runner-up in this year's Oaks, has put herself on track to become a multiple Breeders' Cup winner herself with the way she beat older girls in the Grade I Zenyatta Stakes on Sept. 28. She followed that up with some monster workouts at Santa Anita.
Because having the 1-2 finishers from the Oaks wasn't enough for Royal Delta to try and smack down, her 3-year-old stablemate Close Hatches heads into the Distaff off consecutive Grade I wins in the Mother Goose and Cotillion, winning those two outings by a combined 91/4 lengths.
"I think the one thing about the Oaks this year is it at the time it was being touted as the most competitive we've seen in a while and it's turned out to be that," said Todd Pletcher, who trains Princess of Sylmar and will also saddle graded stakes winner Authenticity in the Distaff. "You look back and see what Princess of Sylmar has done, Close Hatches, Beholder ... sometimes these races come up and we're like, 'Wow, this is really great race.' This case it really was.
"In this field, if you're not Royal Delta, Princess of Sylmar or Beholder, you could get overlooked."
That Princess of Sylmar was a 38-1 long shot when she beat Beholder by a half-length in the Oaks seems a joke in light of her continued domination. Blessed with a closing kick that is wicked even against moderate-to-tepid fractions, the chestnut filly followed her Oaks victory with a 6-length romp in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks and further seized divisional control with her 21/2-length win in the Grade I Alabama on Aug. 17.
Trainer Bill Mott said he didn't drill that hard on Royal Delta leading into the Beldame showdown. Regardless the two-time Eclipse Award winner offered no answer when Princess of Sylmar ran by her in the lane.
"I wasn't shocked, but it was impressive to watch," Pletcher said of the Beldame win. "Ed (Stanco) had some hesitation about (the Distaff) but when she beat Royal Delta, that certainly gave him some confidence that running against older mares was OK. She's just a very talented, gifted filly."
Royal Delta won last year's Distaff on the front end and has mostly stuck to that style since. However, Beholder will probably have something to say about how things get dictated up front this time, and Beholder is 5-for-6 lifetime over her home Santa Anita track.
"She's growing up and I don't think you could ask one to be doing any better than she's doing," trainer Richard Mandella said of Beholder.
Even though Royal Delta has lost three times in six starts this year, it remains a shock when she does get beat given the way she throttled rivals in taking the Grade I Delaware Handicap by 103/4 lengths in July and the Grade I Personal Ensign by 41/2 lengths the next month.
Just as she has yet to take a step wrong when a Breeders' Cup win is on the line, only twice has she suffered back-to-back losses.
"She's always been one who can come back and run a big race after she's had a defeat," Mott said. "Is she the one to beat? Absolutely. I'm not saying she can't be beat, but she is still the one to beat.
"From our eyes, we could look at the others who are ones to beat, like Beholder and Princess of Sylmar in particular.
Mott then joked "Maybe they've even forgotten about Royal Delta a little bit."
When: Friday and Saturday
Where: Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
TV: Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic on NBC-18. All other races on NBC Sports.
Radio: WLXO-FM 96.1
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.