On Saturday at Delaware Park two of the best horses in the country will face-off at the classic distance of 1 ¼ miles. That’s right; I said two of the best horses, with no qualifier needed to designate this dynamic duo as female horses. Royal Delta and Awesome Maria have earned their lofty position among racing’s elite through extended excellence, and in the Delaware Handicap we can see them go at it at a distance nearly forgotten for the distaff set on dirt. Both promise to be in peak form for the mid-summer classic test, and the winner will undoubtedly become the top rated female horse in the land. With all this build-up, it’s no wonder that I say, this could be the best Delaware Handicap in 12 months … Say what???
As good as the potential meeting between Royal Delta and Awesome Maria may be, they would need to team-up to tilt the Earth off its axis to outdo what we saw in last year’s Delaware Handicap. Blind Luck and Havre de Grace put a fantastic exclamation point on their excellent rivalry in what can only be described as a classic.
The scintilating victory proved to be the last win in the brilliant career of Blind Luck. Meanwhile, the brave defeat did nothing to slow down Havre de Grace's march towards eventually being voted Horse of the Year for 2012. As you can see, Royal Delta and Awesome Maria have tons to live up to if they are going to approach what went down last year, but the pair have a good chance to make their own history on Saturday.
They’ve only met once, and only one was at their best that day. It was Awesome Maria as she proved to be too much to handle for Royal Delta in the Sabin Stakes back in February at Gulfstream Park. The five-year-old mare was making her first start since since June, while Royal Delta, champion of the 2011 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, was also making her 2012 debut. The younger champion was sent off as the 11-10 second choice in the five-horse field, while Awesome Maria was the 9-10 favorite coming off her eight month layoff. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Awesome Maria coasted over the strip that she loves. Royal Delta and jockey Jose Lezcano were always behind after stumbling at the start, and when she came to test the favorite at the top of the stretch, it was clear who was the better mare on that day. Awesome Maria rolled home, while Royal Delta showed her class by out-gaming Groupie Doll to the wire. At the finish, Awesome Maria was an impressive eight lengths clear.
She since has scored a facile victory in the Rampart Stakes, before being upset by It’s Tricky in the Ogden Phipps Handicap. Pletcher takes the blame for that loss, saying that his grey star was nowhere near fully cranked for the grade 1 test at Belmont. Improvement is expected from the winner of 9 of 15 lifetime starts. The daughter of Maria’s Mon will likely not be favored this time though, in part because she is coming off the loss, but just as much because of what Royal Delta did last time.
After the defeat in Florida, Royal Delta traveled half way across the globe for trainer, Bill Mott, to run in the world’s richest race. She did not get it done in Dubai, but it was in return to America that she looked every bit the part of the $8.5 million sale-topper at the Keeneland November breeding stock that followed her big win in the Breeders’ Cup. Running over the same track in which she dominated the Ladies’ Classic, Royal Delta absolutely overwhelmed the Fleur de Lis field while gathering her 6th win in 11 lifetime starts. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred daughter of Empire Maker currently rates as the best female in the nation, and looks primed to turn the tables on her top competition on Saturday. She also has the advantage of having experience at running at the extended distance of the Delaware Handicap, having not only run in this year’s World Cup, but also being an impressive winner of the historic Alabama Stakes last year at Saratoga. Will the pair be able to put on a show somewhat similar to last year’s epic edition? Or perhaps one of the others like Cash for Clunkers or Pachattack will be able to throw a monkey wrench into the works. Tune in racefans!