ARCADIA, Calif. — They burst through the gate eight strong, a field of distaffers called one of the best assemblages ever in the 29 runnings of the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. And a handful of strides later, defending race winner Royal Delta began to unveil a secret weapon not even her camp saw coming.
Never in her previous 14 career starts had the champion filly found herself winging away on the lead. Yet against what was supposed to be the ultimate "A-list" of foes, the daughter of Empire Maker revealed a new dimension to her already heralded form.
"She's never really broken well," jockey Mike Smith said of his mount. "When you have a mare with the stride she has and as talented as she is, the best thing to do is stay out of her way, and that's what I did."
Proving that the ceiling on her ability has yet to be reached, Royal Delta switched things up and still delivered her familiar result, posting a 11/2-length, gate-to-wire triumph over previously unbeaten My Miss Aurelia and six others in the $2 million Ladies' Classic.
Though the crowd of 34,619 at Santa Anita Park helped make Royal Delta the 8-to-5 favorite, to win the way she did — over a field that featured six other Grade I winners and two juvenile champions with perfect records in My Miss Aurelia and Awesome Feather — was something that left her connections seeking out new superlatives.
In addition to giving Smith his record 16th win in a Breeders' Cup race, Royal Delta also joins Bayakoa (1989-90) as the only back-to-back winners of the Ladies' Classic (formerly Distaff).
"Spectacular. She's a talented mare to be able to run well and win no matter how the race develops," said Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who earned his ninth victory in a Breeders' Cup race. "I was a little concerned when they were throwing up those fractions but she kept going and ran them off their feet.
"If there is ever a filly you could shoot for the moon with, I would say it would probably be one like her."
Days after her victory in last year's Ladies' Classic, owner Ben Leon purchased Royal Delta for $8.5 million at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock sale and — to Mott's relief — opted to keep her with her Hall of Fame teacher.
It took a bit of winding up, but Royal Delta now has Leon convinced she might go down as one of his great pound-for-pound investments. After running ninth against males in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, Royal Delta began her slow burn toward season's end with victories in the Grade II Fleur de Lis and Delaware Handicap this summer.
A loss to fellow Ladies' Classic contender Love and Pride in the Grade I Personal Ensign on Aug. 26, where she carried 10 more pounds than the winner, proved only a footnote in her prep toward a Breeders' Cup repeat. When she took the Grade I Beldame by 91/2 lengths over rival It's Tricky, she even had her owner mulling whether Saturday's $5 million Classic should be her target.
"When I bought her I asked my chief vet where you draw the line (on price) and he said, 'I don't know how much money you can make or have, but there is only one of her,'" said Leon, who reiterated plans to take another shot with Royal Delta at the Dubai World Cup in 2013.
As it turns out, though, there are a couple of different tricks Royal Delta has in her wheelhouse.
With Love and Pride sitting the outside path second and My Miss Aurelia tucked in along the rail, Royal Delta was about a length clear as she easily cut fractions of :22.69 and :45.81.
Eventual third-place runner Include Me Out began picking it up three-wide on the far turn with My Miss Aurelia having dead aim on Royal Delta between the two at the head of the lane. With Smith going to a left-handed whip, neither challenger made up significant ground as Royal Delta hit the wire in 1:48.80 for her ninth career triumph.
Champion Awesome Feather finished a dull sixth, her first loss in 11 career starts, while multiple Grade I winner Questing was eased on the backstretch by jockey Irad Ortiz but appeared to have no outward physical ailment.
"She got off the van sound, she just didn't feel like running today," said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Questing.
By contrast, Royal Delta let it be known that the front was the only place for her.