There is no disputing who the gatekeeper of the older filly and mare division has been for the last 18 months. If one wants a true read on where their distaffer fits in the big-race picture, going through two-time Eclipse Award-winner Royal Delta is a must.
Four entrants are signing up for the challenge in Sunday's Grade I, $600,000 Personal Ensign at Saratoga Race Course — one of the few spots where Royal Delta's regal air was diffused last season.
Much of the reason the 5-year-old daughter of Empire Maker has maintained her reputation through some less than flattering outings is she almost always delivers an authoritative response whenever her throne is being threatened.
No one suggests that Royal Delta is unbeatable — she has eight losses in 19 career starts — but when Ben Leon's champion mare does feel right and all her elegant cylinders are churning, it becomes awfully difficult to fathom one of her divisional challengers denying her victory.
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After her 10th-place finish against males in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March, trainer Bill Mott thought he saddled the vintage version of Royal Delta for the Grade II Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs on June 15 only to be left perplexed when she lost by 5 lengths to Funny Proposition that night.
Though she had run on the anti-bleeder medication Lasix for the majority of her career, Mott thought the effects of it made Royal Delta uncomfortable that outing and took her off the medication for her start in the Grade I Delaware Handicap on July 20. Whether due to that change or not, the Royal Delta who has won the last two editions of the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic — now known as its original name of the Distaff — resurfaced that day in destroying four challengers by 103/4 lengths under a hand ride from jockey Mike Smith.
"We were obviously very disappointed in the Kentucky race, and a little confused by it," Mott said. "We did take her off of Lasix after that. I just felt like it probably wasn't doing her any favors.
"I think Lasix can offset the electrolyte balance in their system and I think it can adversely affect them at times," Mott continued. "In some horses it can cause the diaphragm to go into spasms and, consequently, they don't get their air properly. We just thought that it was a possibility that that's what had happened to her in the Fleur de Lis. As long as we don't feel the need for it, I'm going to probably continue on that path with her (running without Lasix)."
The 11⁄8-mile Personal Ensign did trip up Royal Delta last season as she finished a half-length behind Love and Pride. All was forgiven when she rebounded to take the Grade I Beldame by 91/2 lengths a month later prior to her Breeders' Cup triumph, but there are legitimate challengers who could turn Sunday's race into another all-out test of her mettle.
The Gary Hartlage-trained On Fire Baby broke through for her first Grade I score when she took the 11⁄16-mile Apple Blossom at Oaklawn in April and most recently was second by a head to Authenticity in the Grade II La Troienne at Churchill on May 3.
Previously best known as the workmate for Grade I winner Verrazano, Authenticity has stepped out on her own merit, running second by a half-length in the Grade I Ogden Phipps Handicap in late May before winning the Grade III Shuvee at Saratoga over the same 11⁄8-mile distance on July 20.
"I feel like she's doing better coming into this race than the last one, and I thought she was doing well going into that one," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who conditions Authenticity and also conditioned Love and Pride. "She certainly needs to be to run in this type of race against a mare the quality of Royal Delta. We're pleased that Authenticity is as good as she can be."
Installed as the 2-5 morning-line favorite, Royal Delta will break from post No. 2 with Authenticity, the 7-2 second choice, in post No. 5.
The Dubai World Cup is the only race Royal Delta has run in twice and lost both times. Smith is banking on that still being true Monday morning given that he gave up the mount on multiple Grade I winner Game On Dude in Sunday's Grade I Pacific Classic to stick with his championship partner.
"I hope, for everybody's sake and in particular Mike, I hope it works out for him," Mott said. "I hope she comes back and runs a good race and can get the job done, and ... that'll justify his decision."
Personal Ensign Handicap
When: Sunday, 5:50 p.m.
Where: Saratoga Race Course
TV: HRTV, TVG
Distance: 11⁄8 miles
For: Fillies and mares 3 and older
PP Horse Jockey Odds
1 On Fire Baby Johnson 5-1
2 Royal Delta Smith 2-5
3 Open Water Ortiz 20-1
4 Centring Castellano 12-1
5 Authenticity Velazquez 7-2