We all cringe when horses are put into races for which they are not qualified, or ready. This pairing is not cringe-worthy: neither trainer, Bill Mott nor new owner, Ben Leon, would do that to the buff, chiseled filly. The horse who was created and first raced under the silks of the late, beneficent Prince Saud bin Khaled, was purchased for the astronomical price of $8.5 million at the November (2011) Keeneland Sale by Leon. Leon's decision was made with his head and his heart:
“There is only one of her. It's like a Picasso. If you are looking for a broodmare by pedigree, you will pick Royal Delta. If you're going to choose a racing filly or one by conformation, you'll pick Royal Delta. How many animals are here that bring all those factors together? She has an intrinsic value."
This historic moment is brought to you by two men who'd love to win the $10 million Dubai World Cup—who wouldn't?—but who are acutely aware that the misplacement of a horse in a race is far-more than just potentially embarrassing.
Royal Delta, the Eclipse Award-winning Champion 3-Year-Old Filly for 2011, proved that she was Dubai-worthy during her 2011 campaign. Her year ended with a triumphant, romping victory in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (Distaff) on November 4th. (She ran the nine furlongs in 1:50.78 under Jose Lezcano and paid $6.40 to win. She trounced some great horses, and showed that she's made of The Right Stuff: like trophies, Eclipse Awards are earned. They are not party favors.) Earlier in the year, I was among those privileged to see her take the Alabama, here at Saratoga.)
Ben Leon, relatively new to the game but a fast learner and wise businessman, has a model that offers universal wisdom—applicable both to his healthcare business and horse racing for his future stars:
“I will not start them too soon. I am not in a hurry. They will tell me when they are ready. If they can't run at two, they can run at three or four. As an owner, I have to be a good provider for each one and do the best I can for each.”
(Take note, naysayers and detractors of the sport: there are many such owners/ breeders and trainers in this industry who want what's best for the horse, at all times. Whether that Wisdom means not racing them before they're ready—physically, emotionally and intellectually—or entering a perfect filly in the world's richest race—Leon's decisions, like those of any conscientious horseman, are based on concern for the animal and her well-being.)
Even though Leon came to own Royal Delta "late" in her career—his decisions for her are based on the aforementioned priority, that of doing the best he can for each of his horses. He would not enter her in a race that his trainer thought to be inappropriate. And the Champion's trainer—is the man who has a distinction that can be held by only one: Bill Mott won the first-ever Dubai World Cup, racing (as the magnificent Tom Durkin summed him up) "…the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!" Mott knows agita: he must've had a serious case of it, flying Cigar thousands of miles, to contest the Cup the very first year of the race. But he held his breath—knew in his heart that this was the next logical move for the great Champion—and his faith in the horse and his own intuition paid off, in spades.
Mott would not bring Royal Delta to Dubai just for the plane ride. He didn't go for the famous Desert Party. He packed his tack and the rippling, fighting-fit filly and took her 8,000 miles because…maybe he knows something we don't. Maybe he knows that she's in the best shape of her life. (Thoroughbreds aren't fully grown until they're five years old: Royal Delta's four.) She's a year closer to full physical and emotional maturity than a year ago this time, and clearly, packin' some serious glutes, leg, chest and shoulder muscles. The photos we've seen from workouts in Dubai show a horse whose every step throbs of authority and power.)
Royal Delta drew post position 7 for the race—smack-dab in the middle of the pack. And the middle of the pack in odds, as well: at 8:1, there's an indication that someone, somewhere thinks that she can win the Cup. Her insightful trainer stated that, “She…earned her way into it…it is not something that we imagined, that she is good enough. She’s done what we asked to do at home. The challenge is how she matches up with an international field. That is what this is all about.”
Royal Delta has all it takes to gallop away with the biggest prize on the biggest night of racing in the world. Her pedigree is outstanding: she's the daughter of the mighty and wildly sexy Empire Maker and great-granddaughter of Triple Crown winner, Hall of Fame member (the one, the only) Seattle Slew on her dam's (Delta Princess) side. How very right it would be if Royal Delta should cruise away with the Dubai World Cup in the year that marks the 35th anniversary of Slew's undefeated Triple Crown victory.
Royal Delta's presence in the Dubai World Cup on Saturday is not a matter of seeing if "the girl" can beat up "the boys." I hope that we American race fans are past that: Europe, the Middle East and the rest of the world (and the community that races Arabian horses, as well)—don't think twice about a female going up against males. It seems to be only here in the United States that long-banished myths about fillies and mares persist. No one at the Dubai Racing Club raised an eyebrow, or shuffled papers uncomfortably when Leon and Mott made their intentions known. Meydan's racing secretary needed only to know that the Champion horse was eligible to enter the race, and she was.
It's a great horse race, featuring brilliant stars from around the world. That's all. Her gender is not a factor—it wasn't a consideration when Leon and Mott sat down with the conditions books, and made the decision. It should not be a factor when you handicap the race.
And, like the late, wise Jess Jackson—owner of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra—Leon isn't giving the bum's rush to his great filly—she'll get to the breeding shed when she's ready, and not a minute before:
"She is very talented. I will give her the opportunity to run this year. If she finishes well, then we'll take it one year at a time. I won't cut her racing career short to start breeding her."
I really do believe that nurture (how we raise a horse) has as much to do as nature (pedigree), when it comes to bringing out greatness. I've read quite a bit, and have come to the conclusion that her original owner, Prince Saud, set Royal Delta on her Life Journey and career path with kindness as her foundation. He's been quoted as saying
"Be more compassionate than necessary, because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle."
Thirty years ago, Purdue ads stated, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken."
The reverse of that is true in the world of racehorses: compassionate, good men molded Royal Delta into a tough-as-nails racehorse. When a horse knows that she's loved, and she's nurtured daily—that horse will respond by doing her best for the humans in her life. A strong foundation makes a house that will not fall. A strong horse is made of hay, oats, water and—yes, that invisible ingredient, love.
Royal Delta takes Jose Lezcano into the gate in Dubai on Saturday—but on her back will ride also the cumulative goodness of the man who made her; the man who trained her and the man who bought her in November. A team like that has great odds—of winning the Dubai World Cup, but even more so, the Game of Life, itself.
Royal Delta winning the Alabama: Courtesy of NYRA/A. Coglianese
Bill Mott: Courtesy of NYRA/A. Coglianese
Royal Delta working out at Meydan: Courtesy of Dave Harmon/Dubai Racing Club
Empire Maker: Courtesy of Juddmonte Farms