Commentary

BC Distaff a Royal affair

What the Distaff lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality

Updated: November 1, 2013, 3:24 AM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

ARCADIA, Calif. -- Queen Elizabeth flew into a rage when she learned that Lady Catherine Grey was going to become a mother -- without permission. Elizabeth, of course, also ordered the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587. Then there was the Korean Queen, Lady Yun, who scratched the king so severely she left his face scarred. And perhaps most famously, if fictionally, there was Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts, who was given to frequent outbursts of, "Off with their heads."

"

She got beat on the day, but she's always been one who can come back and run a big race after she's had a defeat.

" -- Bill Mott, trainer Royal Delta
Capriciousness is traditional among queens, it would seem. (Yes, the same's true for kings.) They're notoriously temperamental, even the queen of racing, Royal Delta. She has won the Breeders' Cup Distaff each of the last two years (when it was called, somewhat foolishly, the Ladies' Classic). In fact, her performance here last year was so powerful -- she led through a rapid opening half-mile in 45.81 seconds -- that it suggested she would have threatened if instead she had raced against "the boys" in the Classic. But she also has seemed indifferent in some of her races, such as the Fleur-de-lis in June, where she ran second, five lengths back, as the 1-5 favorite, and the more recent Beldame, where she again finished second, also at 1-5, and didn't even offer much resistance as the 3-year-old Princess of Sylmar sailed by.

So will the temperamental queen of racing relinquish her crown in the Breeders' Cup Distaff? And if so, who's going to take it?

No and nobody.

"She got beat on the day," Royal Delta's trainer, Bill Mott, said about the Beldame, "but she's always been one who can come back and run a big race after she's had a defeat. We've been beaten on several different occasions, but it's not unusual to see her come back and see her run a huge race after finishing second."

Royal Delta has lost nine races in her career (12 wins in 21 starts, with earnings of $4.6 million), but she has lost back-to-back only twice, and each time included a trip to Dubai, where she ran on a synthetic surface that she apparently abhorred. In other words, she never has lost consecutive races here. And she won't -- probably won't -- lose again Friday.

"She felt like she was a little tired," her jockey, Mike Smith, said about Royal Delta's performance in the Beldame. "It wasn't her 'A' race. It was her 'B' race … She's doing a lot better now, and I love the way she trains over this track."

Before the Beldame, with the Distaff identified as the goal, Mott eased back on Royal Delta's training. She wasn't revved up for the race. In her two workouts immediately before the Beldame, she went five-eights of a mile in 1:02.80 and a half-mile in 47.80. But coming into the Distaff, she has worked five-eighths in 59.60 and a half-mile in 46.40.

That's the real Royal Delta. She has indeed, as Smith said, looked strong here at Santa Anita, and that's the Royal Delta that will show up for the Distaff. But if somebody does beat her, if her capriciousness surfaces and she looks off wistfully in the direction of the mountains, well Beholder, from this perspective, is the only horse that has a chance to defeat her.

Royal Delta
NYRA/Adam CoglianeseRoyal Delta has been Queen of the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Beholder loves Santa Anita, where she has won five of her six outings, and she has sufficient speed to take advantage of the profound speed bias that hovers over the track like an abiding spirit, or ghoul. She, of course, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies here a year ago, and she most recently won the Zenyatta Stakes, leading throughout. Most important, the 3-year-old has improved steadily so that she now seems poised and ready to take on the queen.

"We purposely freshened her and then brought her back late in the summer," said Beholder's Hall of Fame trainer, Richard Mandella, about the filly's four-month break following the Kentucky Oaks, "because we knew we wanted to be here."

But Royal Delta drew inside of Beholder, which will probably force the 3-year-old into a stalking a position. Can Beholder get the jump on her from the gate, or will she try to get by in the stretch?

And what about Princess of Sylmar, who won the Beldame? Yes, she's a princess, too, and a potential queen. But not this week. While the Distaff always has been in the plan for Beholder, it's something of an afterthought for Princess of Sylmar, who was originally scheduled to take a break after the Saratoga season. But like Count Basie at the end of "April in Paris," she went one more time, and now she'll go for yet one more.

Most of all, though, Princess of Sylmar isn't just racing against the other five horses in the Distaff. She's racing against Santa Anita, against a surface that fawns over speed like an overindulgent grandparent. And so from here, the Distaff looks like this: Royal Delta, Beholder, Authenticity, Princess of Sylmar.

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