By BETH HARRIS
ARCADIA, Calif. — Royal Delta is carrying more than Mike Smith on her back in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
The two-time defending champion will try to become just the second three-time winner of a race in the event’s 30-year history. A victory would also clinch the Eclipse Award for older female.
Royal Delta faces threats in Friday’s 1 1/8-mile race at Santa Anita, including one from her own barn.
Besides Royal Delta, trainer Bill Mott will saddle Close Hatches in the highlight race of the opening day of the year-end world championships.
Royal Delta is bidding to equal Goldikova’s record of three straight wins in a Breeders’ Cup race. Royal Delta led all the way in winning by 1 ½ lengths last year, when the race was known as the Ladies’ Classic. Its original name has been restored this year.
Todd Pletcher is sending out contenders Princess of Sylmar and Authenticity. Royal Delta finished second behind Princess of Sylmar in her last race.
And then there’s Beholder — last year’s 2-year-old filly champion who will be competing on her home track.
Royal Delta has been resilient in bouncing back from a loss. Three times, she’s won after a defeat, most recently in July at Del Mar.
“It’s not unusual to see her come back and run a huge race after finishing second,” Mott said.
Royal Delta lost to Princess of Sylmar in the Beldame at Belmont in September. Going into that race, Mott had lightened up the 5-year-old mare’s training, and he blamed that decision for her loss.
Since then, Royal Delta has fired off three consecutive workouts that were the fastest of the day at the distance, fueling Mott’s confidence that she has returned to top form.
“She’s had a good season and hopefully we can top it off here,” he said. “We’re hoping for another big race.”
Princess of Sylmar has produced several of those. She’s won eight of nine races going in, with the 3-year-old filly’s only loss in nearly a year coming against Close Hatches in the Gazelle at Aqueduct in April.
Her stablemate, Authenticity, isn’t too shabby, either. The 6-year-old mare hasn’t been worse than second in six straight graded stakes races, including runner-up finishes behind Royal Delta and Beholder.
“In this field, if you’re not Royal Delta, Princess of Sylmar or Beholder, you could get overlooked,” said Pletcher, who figures the riders will play a big role in the outcome, especially since Royal Delta and Close Hatches have similar running styles.
“There’s probably going to be some cat-and-mouse going on,” he said.
Beholder is 2-for-2 since returning in September from a four-month break. Gary Stevens, who at 50 is enjoying a successful comeback that began in January, will be aboard.
“If she makes the lead, that’s good,” trainer Richard Mandella said. “If she’s away a bit slow and doesn’t, that’s good, too. She can handle it and so can he.”
The Distaff, which goes off at 7:35 p.m. EDT, concludes five Breeders’ Cup races Friday.
Smith, the career leader in money won among Breeders’ Cup jockeys, will ride in all five races the first day. The 48-year-old Hall of Famer has eight mounts on Saturday’s card. He would have ridden in all 14 championship races, but trainer Bob Baffert decided not to enter the Juvenile Fillies.
Splitting that many races over two days eases the load, and “a million dollars helps too,” Smith quipped.
Stevens rides three races Friday and another six on Saturday.
Smith joked that he might need to stop by the first aid room.
“There’s a little oxygen there with my name and Stevens’ name on it,” he said.
Saturday’s $5 million Classic lost a runner when Ron the Greek was scratched because of a hoof injury.
Mott said Thursday that the 6-year-old has an abscess in his right front hoof that was discovered a day earlier during feeding time.
Mott figures the horse bumped the heel of his hoof, causing the abscess to develop. He said Ron the Greek should be fine to resume training in a couple of weeks.
Ron the Greek was fourth in last year’s Classic at Santa Anita, and was coming off an upset win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup last month.