On a night at Churchill Downs during which the 31st running of the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap and its collection of many of the top older racing stars in America seemed a clear centerpiece, a lady who was not a part of the Fosterâ€™s illustrious cast stole the show.
The brightest star in the Churchill Downs firmament on the evening of the first Foster under-the-lights took the stage about 30 minutes before the accomplished group of males that competed in the Foster. And she took our breath away.
The â€œDowns After Darkâ€ spotlight was stolen by Besilu Stableâ€™s Royal Delta, who turned in a sublime performance before a Stephen Foster Day/Night record crowd of 25,417 in winning the $150,000 Fleur de Lis stakes for fillies and mares by eight lengths. The five rivals she left in the distance on Saturday night were not the toughest field she has faced, although runner-up Afleeting Lady is a talented horse who should have a stakes win or two to her credit by yearâ€™s end.
What was most striking about Royal Deltaâ€™s victory was, as we say in racing, the way she did it.
Royal Delta displayed her growing brilliance under the lights at Churchill Downs in early November with a victory in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Ladiesâ€™ Classic, which completed a campaign that earned the Bill Mott-trained filly an Eclipse Award recognizing her as Americaâ€™s top 3-year-old filly.
She returned to the races in late February, but was beaten by eight lengths, by the talented Awesome Maria in the Sabin Stakes at Gulfstream Park.Â But that race was a prep for a run against males a month later, in the $10 million Dubai World Cup at Meydan Race Course in Dubai.
She finished ninth following a troubled journey in which she was completely stopped behind a tiring rival on the far turn. Donâ€™t believe the past performance comment line that described her as having â€œevery chance.â€Â Royal Delta, in truth, had no chance in the Dubai World Cup and Iâ€™m really not sure which race the Dubai chart-caller might have been watching.
If there were any doubts created by her two losses as a 4-year-old, they evaporated on the far turn at Churchill Downs as the daughter of Empire Maker moved effortlessly when called upon by jockey Mike Smith. She quickly collared Afleeting lady and galloped away an easy victory.
She completed 1 1/8 miles over a fast track in 1:49.49, a time that was more than a second faster than the 1:50.51 her Mott-trained stablemate Ron the Greek needed in an all-out drive to beat heavily-favored Wise Dan and a strong collection of males in the Stephen Foster about a half-hour later.
After her Fleur de Lis romp, Mott â€“ Churchill Downsâ€™ all-time winning trainer â€“ suggested that Royal Delta could run next in the Delaware Handicap in July at Delaware Park. Last summerâ€™s running of that race was a classic in which 2010 Kentucky Oaks winner Blind Luck, running the last great race of her career, held off eventual horse of the year Havre de Grace in an effort that was, for my money, the best race of 2011.
Donâ€™t be surprised if Royal Deltaâ€™s next step after Delaware is a run against males at Saratoga, either in the Whitney or Woodward Handicaps. In a rare run in the history of American Thoroughbred racing in which females have earned â€œHorse of the Yearâ€ honors in three consecutive seasons, Royal Delta could extend that streak to four.
To accomplish that feat, Royal Delta would likely need to do what the others have done: face males and either beat them or run extremely well in defeat.
Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 â€œHorse of the Yearâ€, whipped 3-year-old males in a classic run in the Preakness and then downed older males in the Woodward at Saratoga.Â Zenyatta, the 2010 HOY, just missed against Blame in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs to suffer the only loss of her career, but had won that race the previous year on synthetic footing at Santa Anita.Â Havre de Grace whipped males in the Woodward and finished fourth to the Mott-trained Drosselmeyer.
If Royal Delta was spectacular on the track, sheâ€™s even more marvelous when viewed up close.Â She is a beautiful and imposing filly with a pedigree that suggests that sheâ€™ll continue to improve with age and experience. It takes only a little imagination to envision a Royal Delta in September and October that is fitter, faster and more mature than the version we saw last Saturday night at Churchill Downs.
There is no doubt that Mott â€“ one of the greatest trainers in the history of American racing â€“ will do a beautiful job of finding the right spots for his star over the next few months.Â If Royal Delta continues to progress, the current â€œGirl Powerâ€ era will have a new star that, on her best day, could very well rival or equal the best those previous three femaleâ€ Horse of the Yearâ€ honorees have offered.
It is very likely that we have yet to see Royal Deltaâ€™s best day. The prospect of seeing her at the height of her considerable powers later in the year is one of the most exciting possibilities offered by U.S. racing this year.
Photos Courtesy of Reed Palmer Photography, Churchill Downs