Racing is filled with the disappointing tales of horses who are bought for a seven-figure price tag but never come close to repaying their owner for signing that huge check.
Then there are horses like Royal Delta, who left her owner with no regrets about paying a king’s ransom for her, even if she did not cover a humungous price tag.
The story of Royal Delta actually has two chapters.
The first came during her 2- and 3-year-old seasons when she was owned by her breeder, Prince Saud bin Khaled, and trained by Bill Mott and won the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (which known as the Ladies’ Classic at the time) to become the champion 3-year-old filly of 2011.
But when bin Khalid passed away in 2011, Royal Delta was entered in the Keeneland November breeding stock sale. It was there that Benjamin Leon of Besilu Stables bought her for an astronomical $8.5 million.
Keeping Royal Delta with Mott, Leon was rewarded with two fabulous years that saw the daughter of Empire Maker race 14 times, post seven victories and earn slightly more than $3.1 million, with two Eclipse Awards to boot.
Royal Delta’s career started in an auspicious manner. While Mott is not known for his success with first-time starters, Royal Delta was primed for an eye-opening performance in her debut. Though she was dismissed at 7-1 odds, she overcame some traffic issues and pulled away to an amazing 12-length victory on Oct. 30, 2010, at Belmont Park.
That proved to be her lone start at 2, but it was impressive enough to ignite high expectations for her 3-year-old campaign and Royal Delta did not disappoint – for the most part.
After a stunning ninth-place finish in the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs to start her 2011 campaign, Royal Delta reeled off wins in a Keeneland allowance race and the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico.
After finishing third in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga, Royal Delta returned four weeks later and soared to the top of the 3-year-old filly division by posting a 5 ½-length romp over It’s Tricky in the famed Grade 1 Alabama Stakes at the Spa.
Tested against older females for the first time, Royal Delta was no match for 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace and finished second to her by 8 ¼ lengths in the Grade 1 Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park.
But when Havre de Grace’s connections opted for the Breeders’ Cup Classic instead of the Ladies’ Classic it enabled Royal Delta to go off as a 2-1 favorite at the World Championships and register the first of her Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic wins.
Ridden by Jose Lezcano, Royal Delta pulled away in the final furlong to win the 2011 Ladies’ Classic at Churchill Downs by 2 ½ lengths over It’s Tricky.
After the sale, Royal Delta was second in the Sabin Stakes at Gulfstream Park in her first start for Leon and then was ambitiously placed against males in the 2012 Dubai World Cup, where she finished ninth.
The long and unsuccessful trip to Dubai, however, did not have a lasting impact on Royal Delta as she recorded wins in the Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs and the Delaware Handicap upon her return to the United States.
She finished second to longshot Love and Pride, who was fourth in the Del 'Cap, as a 3-5 favorite in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga, but that was her final setback in 2012.
Royal Delta won the Beldame by 9 ½ lengths and then closed the year with a 1 ½-length victory over My Miss Aurelia under jockey Mike Smith to become just the second horse to notch back-to-back wins in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff/Ladies’ Classic and secure an Eclipse Award as the year’s champion older female.
Mott followed the same script that he used in 2012 for Royal Delta’s 5-year-old season. This time, she won the Sabin but was 10th in the Dubai World Cup.
After a second in the Fleur de Lis, she won the Del 'Cap again and avenged her loss in the 2012 Personal Ensign, romping by 4 ½-lengths over Authenticity as a 1-2 favorite.
The Beldame was targeted as her final prep for the Breeders’ Cup, but on this occasion, she lost to the 3-year-old Kentucky Oaks and Alabama winner Princess of Sylmar by two lengths as a 3-10 betting favorite.
That set the stage for a rematch at Santa Anita Park in the Breeders’ Cup’s showcase race for fillies and mares, which once again assumed its original name, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
Royal Delta and Princess of Sylmar were the two favorites in the Distaff, but it was Beholder who proved best by 4 ¼ lengths over Close Hatches, who was trained by Mott for Juddmonte Farms.
Royal Delta was second in the early stages but could not keep pace on the final turn and wound up fourth in the field of six as the 7-5 favorite.
The 2013 Breeders’ Cup Distaff proved to be the final race for Royal Delta, who was once again named the champion older dirt female and headed into retirement with third Eclipse Award in tow.
She left the racetrack with a record of 12 wins in 22 starts, with six of the victories coming in Grade 1 stakes, and earnings of $4,811,126. She was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2019.
Royal Delta was sent to Ireland to become a broodmare, but sadly she died in February of 2017 after suffering complications from delivering her first foal, a daughter of Galileo.
It was a tragic, heartbreaking end for such a great champion, who gave Leon every bit of his money’s worth in terms of excitement and satisfaction.
“I’ve had many great moments in my life but the joy and pleasure that Royal Delta has brought to me and my family is indescribable,” he said. “She offered us the opportunity to enjoy wonderful places, people, and experiences. She was a gift that allowed us many thrilling moments and we will be forever grateful.”
Note: This feature was originally published in December 2018 and has been updated.
- Royal Delta and Bayakoa (1989-90) are the only horses to win the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in consecutive years.
- At the time, Royal Delta’s sale price of $8.5 million was the third-highest price ever at an auction for a racing prospect or broodmare, trailing only Better Than Honour ($14 million) and Ashado ($9 million).
- Gulfstream Park re-named the Sabin Stakes the Royal Delta Stakes in her honor.