Royal and Wise - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the July 27, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Some intriguing storylines are developing in the race for Horse of the Year, and two candidates in particular will be worth watching through the second half of the season.

Royal Delta stamped herself as a contender for the year’s top honor when she romped by 103/4 lengths July 20 in her second consecutive victory in the Delaware Handicap (gr. I). The ease with which the daughter of Empire Maker won speaks more to what thrills we might see from her going forward than what she’s done to date. Already with two Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classics (gr. I) under her belt, Royal Delta seems on the right track to make a serious bid to tie Goldikova’s record of three consecutive Breeders’ Cup wins.

If that were to happen, would it be enough to warrant Horse of the Year consideration? Consideration, yes. But to win it? That’s a big maybe.

To be a contender, Royal Delta would at least need to follow last year’s trek through the Personal Ensign Handicap and the Beldame Invitational (both grade I). If she caps off the year with four grade I victories and notches her third Ladies’ Classic, then she rises to the level of serious contender.

Among three of the last four females to be crowned Horse of the Year— Azeri (2002), Rachel Alexandra (2009), Zenyatta (2010), and Havre de Grace (2011)—the bar has been set at five grade I wins. Azeri bolstered her record with two more graded stakes wins and a close second in a third. Rachel had a perfect season that included the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and became the first female to win the Woodward Stakes (gr. I), while Zenyatta extended a then-unbeaten career with five more grade I stakes, only to lose a hard-fought battle by a head against Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). Havre de Grace won three grade Is, including the Woodward Stakes over males, among her six graded wins during her Horse of the Year season.

Two more grade I victories and a third Breeders’ Cup title are likely the minimum needed before Royal Delta could begin to threaten the reigning Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, should he continue stringing victories together.

What could dramatically change the landscape is whether owner Benjamin Leon Jr., an owner not afraid to take a risk, chooses to test Royal Delta against male horses...again. Royal Delta has already faced the boys twice, both times in the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (UAE-I). Both times we never saw her at her best, but the World Cup trip has been a particularly tall order for most American runners since the construction of Meydan Race Course with its artificial Tapeta surface. We don’t know what she’s capable of against males here in North America. Could we find out in the Breeders’ Cup Classic?

Wise Dan, Mort Fink’s homebred son of Wiseman’s Ferry, has already won two grade I stakes this year (Maker’s 46 Mile Stakes and Woodford Reserve Turf Classic Stakes) and no one will soon forget his gutsy dash through a small hole along the Churchill Downs hedge in a downpour to win the Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT).

In 2012 after winning the Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes (gr. IT) at Keeneland trainer Charles LoPresti said he felt “he deserves to run in the Classic.” As it turned out, Wise Dan was entered in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT), where he won his fifth graded stakes of the year (three of them grade I).

It is too early to speculate about the fall, but we can certainly dream of the excitement that would be generated should Royal Delta and Wise Dan face off in the Classic. Judging from the past, it is a contest not out of the realm of possibility; two physically gifted athletes possessing strong minds and powerful wills.

We’d see not only the race of the year, but perhaps one for the ages.

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