Becoming Horse of the Year is about doing something that sets you apart from the rest of the crop. It is about overcoming adversity and showing that even under the most unpredictable circumstances, a champion can shine through and overcome. Dominance alone can be the swing vote, but adversity and risk taking are what truly build the foundation of champions. When considering the aspects of a horse of the year, Royal Delta has shown us all the defining qualities of the title.
In the toughest field of any Breeders’ Cup race in 2012, she showed a way to win that she hasn’t demonstrated in her entire career. It was quite obvious that her break and early position was designed to flank the speedy Questing, but when her pace setting foe never arrived, Royal Delta showed she wasn’t afraid. Setting a suicidal pace that would fold even the toughest of front running horses, she managed to open up in the stretch and hand two undefeated champions their first taste of defeat.
But Horse of the Year should not be about one race. Trainer Bill Mott attempted to do something in 2012 that brings chills to even the most risk-taking horsemen. He took his champion filly and flew her half way across the world to take on the boys on a racing surface fairly foreign to her. Granted, not even the great Royal Delta could overcome the challenge of travelling, but neither could Excelebration a few days ago.
We have heard from many people that a trip to Dubai can ruin a horse. And if not carefully managed, Royal Delta could have simply become the bad side of a regretful statistic. But when she came back, she wanted to make a statement. Demolishing the Grade 2 Fleur De Lis field by 8 lengths showed Mott and the world that his champion showed no ill signs of jet lag or the loss of the will to win.
Next was the 10 furlong Delaware Handicap. Here she again showed the heart of champion surviving the length of the stretch coming out on top over a very game Tiz Miz Sue. In the Grade 1 Personal Ensign, Royal Delta came up short waiting for the finishing rush that would never come from Its Tricky. This race was flawed by the disastrous start by Its Tricky, but in the interest of this discussion, Royal Delta should have overcome her initial hesitation. Love and Pride later flattered Royal Delta with a romp in the Zenyatta Stakes, but would not get the last laugh over the same track and distance in the Breeders’ Cup. Royal Delta showed her that no one gets the best of her twice.
And the last thing that any horse needs to become champion…an absolute shellacking of their competition in a Grade 1 event. In Royal Delta’s case, it was the Beldame Stakes, where she showed her class and dominance via a 9 ½ length romp under a hand ride.
Royal Delta has done what all Horse of the Year winners must do. In the case of this discussion with Mr. Zipse, there is no doubting what Wise Dan has accomplished. It is what he didn’t do that makes him vulnerable. He did not win over conventional dirt in 2012, and only won past a mile once. His track record setting run at Keenland was one of the most impressive pieces of running I saw all year, but the absence of a classic-distance victory has proven a difficult hurdle when selecting horse of the year honors. Is he the best older male? Absolutely. Is he the best turf horse? I would say so. Is he the horse of the year? I think that honor will fall onto a filly for the 4th consecutive year.
She may have shown some weakness earlier in the year, but Royal Delta did what she did best, came on strong in the stretch to prove she is the deserving of the title. Overtaking a horse like Wise Dan is not a challenge for the timid. But if there is one horse than can do it, it’s the elegant beauty with royalty in her name, competition in her spirit, and the heart of a champion.
Royal Delta completed an outstanding year in 2012 with a win in the Ladies’ Classic, unfortunately for her Horse of the Year supporters, it was simply not the most outstanding American campaign of the year. That distinction, of course, goes to Wise Dan. Not only was he a powerful winner of the Breeders’ Cup, but he also was the most consistent and impressive horse in the nation. And if you are looking for a horse who did something outside of the box this year, look no further than Dan, who demonstrated his quality on turf, dirt, and synthetics, all within the calendar year.
I would argue that the toughest overall field top to bottom was in fact found in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. The best two milers in Europe not named Frankel, a turf loving Kentucky Derby winner, a California import with speed to burn, and a handful of other graded stakes performers, made this race deep and contentious. Contentious, that is, until Dan turned the true international test into another rather easy win; something he has done all year, as each of his five wins were won in impressive fashion.
Points for Royal Delta for going to Dubai; unfortunately those points cannot be cashed in on this discussion considering she finished 9th. Wise Dan, meanwhile, was a model of consistency, starting with the Grade 3 Ben Ali at Keeneland in which he won by a pole, while running a 117 Beyer in the process; a figure which no one has bested this year. 5 wins and 1 second in 6 starts this year is superior to Royal Delta’s record which includes two losses to females in America.
She better have come back from Dubai in good form, otherwise she is not even in this discussion … The Lord of Versatility also made a statement that same evening at Churchill. Making his only start of the year on dirt, Dan had a horrid trip going into the first turn, and gave weight to one of the strongest fields of the year. Still he was only denied victory in the last jump when the rail opened up for the powerful stretch run of Ron the Greek. If you notice, Classic winner Fort Larned actually had a similar trip to Dan that night and checked in 8th.
While your choice, Matt, Royal Delta, was struggling with the likes of Tiz Miz Sue and Love and Pride, Wise Dan took his game to turf and his show on the road. Traveling to some of the best tracks in America, and Canada, Dan made a mockery of his competition in the Grade 2 Fourstardave at Saratoga, the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile, and the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland, before doing his thing in sunny Southern California. Wise Dan and his connections looked for competition in all corners of North America; there simply was none good enough to give him a true challenge.
See Wise Dan’s last three races. All of them were grade 1’s, and all of them were won in the fashion of a true champion.
Tread lightly in these waters, Mr. Scott … Wise Dan was nothing short of excellent on three surfaces, at five major tracks, and at important American distances of a flat mile and nine furlongs. If you are banking on Royal Delta’s win at ten furlongs, I’m not sure an all-out victory over Tiz Miz Sue is going to garner you the desired results. You are right, Wise Dan was the best older male and turf horse in the nation, and I have no doubt that is better than the females this year. Royal Delta, meanwhile, was the best female running a route of ground this year, while Groupie Doll was arguably more dominant though, in her division of the distaff set. If only I had seen Royal Delta try males one other time other than her failed trip to Dubai.
Big respect for Royal Delta, it was not my intention to cut her down in any way here today, but rather to merely demonstrate in clear terms that Wise Dan had the better overall year, and is without question more deserving of the 2012 Horse of the Year award … mission accomplished.