Being a good sport

The expression “the sporting thing to do” usually implies that there are other more profitable options to choose from. For instance, finishing out a storied college career before going pro is usually an emotional decision not a logical decision. But sports, and life, are enhanced by emotion.

In 2011, Benjamin Leon decided to continue to race Royal Delta after purchasing her for $8.5 million as a birthday gift for his wife. It was the sporting thing to do, but most other people would have retired her before the ink had dried on the bill of sale.

Two days before Leon bought her, Royal Delta had won the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic at Churchill Downs. Although she wouldn't officially be named champion 3-year-old filly until a few months later during the Eclipse Awards, it was presumed she would be. On top of her racing ability, Royal Delta is also royally bred. The only reason she was being sold is because her owner/breeder, Saud bin Khaled, had died.

Instead of sending her off to be a broodmare, Leon decided to leave Royal Delta in training. He also opted to leave her with her trainer, Bill Mott, instead of moving her to one of the trainers he normally uses.

I was there the day he purchased her, and the amount of excitement radiating through the Keeneland sales grounds was palpable.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Leon said at the time. “She is the whole package. My passion is breeding and I can't think of a better mare to breed in the future than her, but I also can't think of a better filly to enjoy now on the track than her.

“I hope she will give good thrills to us and to all the people that enjoy this sport. We are going to enjoy her on the track as long as she can do that. Then, with no rush, the day will come that she becomes a mom.”

For the next two years, Royal Delta provided many a thrill for both her new owners and for the sport in general. She repeated in the Ladies' Classic (which is now back to its original name of Distaff) and was named champion older mare in 2012. The six-time Grade 1 winner also earned a bit more than $3.1 million during those two years, and her career earnings stand at a total of $4,811,126.

This week, it was announced that it was indeed time for Royal Delta to become a mom. No one was surprised since she will be 6 next year, and it is impossible to begrudge Leon. He let her run for far longer than most would have.

In a press release, it was announced Royal Delta will be sent to Ireland to be bred to Galileo, who is widely believed to be the best stallion currently at stud in the world. He is so sought after, in fact, that his fee is private. If you have to ask how much it costs to breed to Galileo, you can't afford it. If Leon decides to sell the resulting foal, I would almost guarantee he will finish recouping the money he spent to purchase Royal Delta.

Incidentally, Mott had nominated Royal Delta to the grade 1 Cigar Mile on Nov. 30. If the race holds together, it will be one of the best of 2013. Eight grade 1 winners, including two-time Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner Groupie Doll, look to be in the starting gate that day.

There is something poetic in the timing of it all, as in some ways, Groupie Doll is 2013's Royal Delta. A respected champion on the track, days after defending her title in the Breeders' Cup, Groupie Doll was offered for sale at Keeneland on Nov. 6. Until then, she spent her career racing for the people who not only bred and raised her, but trained her as well.

Her situation is a little different, though. Groupie Doll, while nicely bred, has a pedigree nowhere as regal as Royal Delta's. And unlike Royal Delta's connections, Groupie Doll's racing family is very much alive. The smaller, family-run operation just could no longer afford to keep her. She simply had become too good and too valuable.

“I’ll be sad and it’s gonna hurt, but it’s the only thing that we can do,” trainer Buff Bradley said when it was announced she would be sold. “Groupie Doll is going to be taking care of the rest of my horses, basically.”

Groupie Doll sold for $3.1 million to Mandy Pope, who might be best known for purchasing 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace for an eye-popping $10 million. Pope bought Groupie Doll with every intention of retiring her, but the Bradleys had another idea.

Last year, Groupie Doll took on the boys in the Cigar Mile only to lose by the barest of noses to Stay Thirsty in a thrilling photo finish. If she had not been sold, she would be lining up to try again this year. Although she was no longer their horse, those who had nurtured Groupie Doll her entire life asked Pope to give her the chance to avenge her loss.

Pope, in a show of true sportsmanship, said yes.

In a video posted by the New York Racing Association, she said, “I was in love with her before I had her, so now I just get to be around her, which is really neat … When I bought her, I didn't even think about racing her. I was looking for broodmares, and that is why I bought her. With her being 5 and turning 6, I would still like to get her bred at some point next year, but if she wants to run some more, she can run some more, as long as she and Buff say it is okay.”

What can be difficult for fans of the sport to accept is the fact that sometimes perfectly healthy, sound talented runners are retired simply because they are worth more away from the track than on it. It's racing's version of that college talent leaving for a professional league simply because of money. There is no guarantee they will find equal success in that realm, but the offer on the table is too much to ignore.

From a financial standpoint, the fact Royal Delta and Groupie Doll are both female horses probably played a part in leaving them in training, since they can only have one foal a year whereas a stallion can sire hundreds of foals in the same amount of time.

That said, both Leon and Pope deserve to be applauded for their decisions with these fabulous mares. Retiring them as soon as they purchased them would have been the easy route, and they opted to let happy healthy horses do what they were born to do.

It is the very definition of a sporting gesture, and the sport is better off for it.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.