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Zipse At The Track

Remembering … Royal Delta

Royal Delta_BC_615 X 400
Photo: Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire

Horse racing royalty, that is what she was. From the very first time she stepped on the racetrack one fall afternoon at Belmont Park, I faithfully followed the racing career of Royal Delta. As good as she was, it was the natural thing to do. Bred to be a good one, and with looks to kill, the daughter of Empire Maker and Delta Princess was destined for stardom from the beginning.


That beginning came the day before Halloween in 2010, when the daughter of a Belmont Stakes winner debuted at the same track where her sire earned his most important victory. There were eight other fillies in that maiden race, but by the time the field hit the stretch it was all about the 7-1 shot from the barn of Bill Mott. Needing to wait to find room behind a wall of horses, when Royal Delta found an opening, she was gone. Tall, dark, and pretty, she made the field of well-intentioned young females look completely outclassed. A 12-length winner in her first career start, class would be a consistent theme for her, throughout the next three years on the racetrack.


That would be the only time her owner and breeder, Prince Saud bin Khaled, would see Royal Delta run. He died early in 2011, before she was ready to run for the first time as a three-year-old. She seemed not quite ready to run when she did make her second career start. The performance, a ninth-place finish in the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs was called a “dud” by her Hall of Fame trainer, but Mott knew that was not the real Royal Delta, and her next two starts would quickly prove him right.


Produced by a multiple graded stakes winning turf mare by A.P. Indy, Royal Delta had little trouble taking to the old Polytrack surface at Keeneland in her third start. Going wide in the allowance test, she powered home in the rain impressively. It was enough for Mott to consider her for the Kentucky Oaks three weeks later. Never one to rush, though, she was held out of Plum Pretty’s Oaks and pointed instead for the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan a couple of weeks later. A similar winning move that was unleashed at Keeneland carried her to the winner’s circle in Pimlico. Four starts into her career, and a star was being born.


That victory in the Black-Eyed Susan, on the day before Shackleford bested Animal Kingdom in the Preakness, was not only her first graded stakes score, but it also represented the first of 19 consecutive graded stakes in which the soon to be champion would compete. She would win more than half of them.


Two starts after her victory in Maryland, the trajectory of the racing career of Royal Delta was launched in earnest. The Grade 1 Alabama Stakes of 2011 brought together a star-studded field, but on this August afternoon at Saratoga, one star shined brightly above the rest. In one of the most prestigious races a three-year-old filly can win, and in her sixth lifetime start, Royal Delta won it a way that was proof positive that she was, and would be, something special.


I had the opportunity to see Royal Delta several times in person, including two consecutive victories in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The first came under the lights at Churchill Downs, and her decisive victory there cemented her status as the best three-year-filly in the land. She had a way about her that was different than other horses. I always thought that she was very well named. She had the look of a classy European, yet she was running on the dirt. In her races, she ran a bit low to the ground, reminding me of her Horse of the Year broodmare sire.


Following her victory in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup, Royal Delta was auctioned off as part of the dispersal sale of her deceased owner. Going in, it was unknown whether the soon to be named champion would ever race again. With her breeding, and especially her prowess on the racetrack, she was purchased for the royal sum of $8.5 million at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale by Benjamin Leon, of Besilu Stables. Leon had no intention of ushering his new champion to the breeding shed.


At 4, Royal Delta may have been at her very best. She ran seven times, and won four. Her travels for her new owner took her to Florida, Dubai, Kentucky, Delaware, Saratoga, Belmont, and finally Santa Anita. She had no luck on the synthetic surface at Meydan, but in America, she finished first or second in all six starts. She romped in the Fleur de Lis, and she was ultra-game in a Delaware Handicap win, and a Personal Ensign defeat. That fall, she proved untouchable in the Beldame, before running them off their feet in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff under Mike Smith.


It was that win on the other coast, where my appreciation for Royal Delta reached another level. Only the great ones can win consecutive editions of the Breeders’ Cup, on two very different racing surfaces, and she did it with two decidedly different running styles. It was as if she knew that she was best that afternoon at Santa Anita and dared her classy competition to try to prove otherwise. They could not.


In her final season of racing, Royal Delta may not have been as consistent as she had been the year before, but she most certainly had her moments. She won the Sabin, the Delaware Handicap, and the Personal Ensign, around another disappointing try in the Dubai World Cup. It was enough to ultimately land a third Eclipse Award.

The Champion Older Female of 2013 ended her season with a runner-up finish to Princess of Sylmar in the Beldame, and a fourth-place finish to Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, but I will always remember her defense of the Grade 1 Delaware Handicap that year. She was simply in another class from her competition, and today especially, I believe it is a great way to remember Royal Delta.


After the unsuccessful attempt at a third consecutive Breeders’ Cup victory, owner Benjamin Leon announced that Royal Delta had done enough on the racetrack. The soon to be three-time champion would be shipped to Ireland to be bred to the world’s top sire, Galileo. It was the beginning of her ultimate demise, but in fairness, her passing due to foaling complications could have happened anywhere.


All told, Royal Delta won 10 graded stakes. Even more impressively, she won an Eclipse Award in three consecutive seasons. She retired with an outstanding record of 12 wins, 5 seconds, and 1 third from 22 starts. Her career earnings of $4,811,126 land her as one of the richest race mares ever to grace an American racetrack. In four seasons, she won six Grade 1 races. Two of those, of course, came on the big stage of the Breeders’ Cup. She traveled the world, and was a graded stakes winner at seven different racetracks.


She may not have been as spectacular as Rachel Alexandra, or as consistent as Zenyatta, but in an era of great fillies and mares, Royal Delta managed to distinguish herself. What she was, was uniquely Royal Delta, and that says more than enough. From a young filly, to a seasoned mare, she was a star. Elegant and classy, she earned her place among the great horses of her generation. One that future young stars can be compared to. I look forward to voting for her entry into Racing’s Hall of Fame, and I plan on cheering loudly for her on induction day.


Today’s news of her passing was both shocking and sad. It’s always hurts to lose a great horse, but especially so, when it is one as young as Royal Delta. I cannot imagine what her connections are going through right now. Giving birth is a mother’s calling, and for Royal Delta, it was her final calling. We can only hope that her surviving foal, a daughter by Galileo, becomes a shining legacy to her very special mother. I remember you … Royal Delta



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Meet Brian Zipse 

Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Taken to the races at a very young age, he has been lucky enough to see all the greats in person from Secretariat, Forego, and Ruffian through Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and American Pharoah. Before coming to the Nation, Brian displayed his love for the sport through the development of his horse racing website, which quickly became one of the most popular blogs in the game. 

The Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, Brian authored a daily column as Zipse at the Track, or ZATT for short, and added his editorial flare to the overall content of the website. Now a Senior Writer for HRN, Brian continues to contribute his thoughts on racing, as well as co-hosting the popular racing show, HorseCenter. A big supporter of thoroughbred aftercare, he serves as the President of The Exceller Fund.

Brian's work has also been published on several leading industry sites. He has consulted for leading contest site Derby Wars, is both a Hall of Fame and NTRA poll voter, and is a Vox Populi committee member. 

A horse owner and graduate of DePaul University, Brian lives just outside of Louisville with his wife Candice and daughter Kendra.


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