August 21, 2019

Royal Delta’s “what might have been” in Dubai

Royal Delta romping in the 2013 Personal Ensign at Saratoga (Photo courtesy of NYRA/Coglianese Photography)

With the tragic news of Royal Delta’s death due to foaling complications, thoughts naturally turn to her stellar career on the track. As a three-time Eclipse Award champion, and $4.8 million-earner, she’s assured of a spot in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

So it probably sounds greedy, or churlish, to dwell on the major prize that got away: the $10 million Dubai World Cup (G1). That was through no fault of Royal Delta’s, but a case of bad timing.

Royal Delta came along during Meydan’s synthetic era, and the Tapeta surface proved a hindrance to the top-class dirt performer. An uncharacteristic ninth (with trouble) in 2012, she wound up 10th after setting the pace in 2013. The Tapeta, especially late at night at the end of March in Dubai, played far differently from Keeneland’s old Polytrack that she’d handled in an allowance. Both of her World Cup jockeys, Jose Lezcano and Mike Smith, commented about how she labored on the surface.

I don’t dredge this up to be negative. On the contrary, I note it now in praise of Royal Delta: she might have made history if her window of World Cup opportunity had coincided with a dirt track.

By Empire Maker and out of the beautifully bred Grade 3 winner Delta Princess, by A.P. Indy, Royal Delta had a pedigree that cried out for a classic distance. With a dearth of high-level opportunities at 1 1/4 miles in her own division here, she made just three U.S. starts at the trip, and won them all.

Royal Delta dominated the 2011 Alabama (G1) and scored her first Delaware H. (G2) in 2012, digging deep to repel Tiz Miz Sue (while giving her nine pounds as the 124-pound highweight). In her repeat in the upgraded Delaware ‘Cap (G1) in 2013, the Bill Mott mare was at her absolute peak in a 10 3/4-length rout, again spotting weight all around.

Recording a career-best 111 BRIS Speed rating for that second Del ‘Cap, Royal Delta could have been a match for the top dirt males of her day. While she didn’t pursue that chance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), she did roll the dice in the Dubai World Cup.

That bold idea was thanks to owner Benjamin Leon of Besilu Stables. After purchasing Royal Delta for $8.5 million at Keeneland November in 2011 – when she toured the ring as the presumptive champion three-year-old filly – Leon could have retired her. Instead, he sportingly campaigned her for two more seasons, giving us more time to enjoy her and allowing her to build a Hall of Fame resume.

With her high cruising speed and relentless galloping style, Royal Delta was tailor-made for the World Cup in its historic incarnation on dirt. Unfortunately, she came along too late for Nad al Sheba, the site of Cigar’s victory (for Mott) in the inaugural World Cup in 1996. Now that Meydan’s switched to dirt, and you see pacey types roll right along, you can only wonder what kind of fireworks Royal Delta might have produced if that change had taken place a couple of years earlier (or they’d never gone synthetic at all).

No female has ever won the World Cup, but if and when it happens, spare a thought for Royal Delta. But for the synthetic experiment, she might have furnished that breakthrough.

Of course, this opinion will fade into oblivion, in keeping with John E. Madden’s adage, “Opinions die; it is only the records that stand.”

Royal Delta doesn’t need my opinion to boost her historic stature. Her record stands well enough on its own.