Royal Delta, the champion 3-year-old of 2011 who was purchased by Benjamin Leon's Besilu Stables for $8.5 million at Keeneland last November, made her first start since a troubled ninth-place finish against males in the Dubai World Cup, galloping to the easiest kind of victory in the Grade 2 Fleur De Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs on Saturday night.
Ridden for the first time by Hall of Famer Mike Smith for Hall of Fame trainer William Mott, Royal Delta settled just off the early pace of Sterling Madame, who went the opening quarter in :23.71, the half-mile in :47.70, and six furlongs in 1:12.03. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred daughter of Empire Maker out of Delta Princess, by A.P. Indy, made a powerful move approaching the far turn, quickly took command, and then drew off as her rider pleased without any encouragement whatsoever. She won by eight lengths and covered the nine furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.49 after a mile split of 1:36.50. Afleeting Lady was a distant second, with St. John's River third.
“Heading for home she was just in a gallop,” Smith told HRTV after the race. Smith, who was the regular rider of three-time champion mare and 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta, got the call to replace Jose Lezcano, who had ridden Royal Delta for most of her races, including her two 2012 losses in the G3 Sabin at Gulfstream Park and the Dubai World Cup.
The Fleur De Lis was the sixth victory in 11 career starts for Royal Delta, broke her maiden by 12 lengths in her only start at two, then won the G2 Black-Eyed Susan, G1 Alabama, and G1 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic en route to her Eclipse Award at three. She was bred in Kentucky by Palides Investments NV Inc.
Quotes, courtesy Churchill Downs media office
Benjamin Leon, owner of Royal Delta, winner: “She ran good in Dubai, but had a bad trip. Today, I don't think (jockey) Mike (Smith) had to hit her a single time. He gave her a great ride and the filly did her job. I'm very happy.”
Bill Mott, trainer of Royal Delta, winner: “Without a doubt, it was very good to see. She had a nice, smooth trip today and gave a good effort. She's a champion. She was a deserving champion last year and it looks like right now, from what we saw tonight, there are more good things to come.”
Q: What's next? “The Delaware Handicap is possible.”
Mike Smith, jockey on Royal Delta, winner: “She's just a monster. They way she drove away from some really good fillies was pretty impressive. Bill (Mott) said to get her out of there and break well and try not to take too much hold of her or I would change her stride. He said to try to get in a rhythm with her.
“She just had them over a barrel today. I could tell you a lot of different things, but I could have ridden her backwards today and she still would have won.”
Corey Lanerie, jockey on Afleeting Lady, second: “I was second-best. That filly is just something special. I got my filly to relax good and the race set up just like I thought. I thought I'd be laying second and hopefully I'd get the jump on her (Royal Delta) and kick on, but she was in my pocket at the quarter pole. I was glad to be second. She just put us away. She is in another class.”
Q: Afleeting Lady continues to run well … “She's a very nice filly. She ran her eyeballs out and gave me everything she had. She just couldn't beat that one.”
Rosie Napravnik, jockey of St. John's River, third: “The pace wasn't exactly ideal for her. She could use a little more pace in front of her. But I don't think it was her best race. Not that it was a bad race. She still ran pretty well. I just don't think it was her best day.”
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