11/01/2012 10:17PM

Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic: Royal Delta one to beat in extremely deep field

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Barbara D. Livingston
Royal Delta is one of seven Grade 1 winners in the BC Ladies' Classic.

ARCADIA, Calif. -- The $2 million Ladies' Classic will live up to its classic moniker Friday when the Breeders' Cup rolls back into Santa Anita for a two-day event that includes one of the most widely anticipated races of 2012.

Some are calling this year's Ladies' Classic field the strongest ever -- seven Grade 1 winners, including three champions, two of whom are unbeaten.

"There is no shortage of champions in there," Bill Mott said referring to his trainee Royal Delta, and unbeaten fillies My Miss Aurelia and Awesome Feather.

"You always want definition," My Miss Aurelia's trainer Steve Asmussen said. "This race is going to define them."

In addition to the three principals, Grade 1 winners include Questing, Love and Pride, Include Me Out, and Grace Hall. The field is so deep that Class Included, one-two in all 16 of her starts, is listed at 30-1.

The Ladies' Classic (race 9) is the main event on a 10-race Friday card with six Breeders' Cup races, including the $500,000 Juvenile Sprint (race 4) and $500,000 Marathon (race 5). Seven-figure fireworks commence when highly regarded English import Sky Lantern makes her U.S. debut in the $1 million Juvenile Fillies Turf (race 6).

An old-fashioned East-West showdown looms in the $2 million Juvenile Fillies (race 7). Unbeaten California filly Executiveprivilege faces unbeaten New York fillies Dreaming of Julia and Kauai Katie. The $2 million Filly & Mare Turf (race 8) includes top-class English import The Fugue. Following the Ladies' Classic, the card ends with the Grade 2 Twilight Derby (race 10).

Royal Delta won the Ladies' Classic last year and is the horse to beat in the Ladies' Classic this year, despite an eventful Monday journey from New York. Royal Delta sustained a gash on her right hip while loading onto the plane, and was sutured after arriving in California.

Mott was relieved Royal Delta was able to train Tuesday without incident at Santa Anita. "We may have dodged a bullet," he said.

Royal Delta, 4, was purchased last fall for $8.5 million by owner Benjamin Leon, and this year won 3 of 6, including a Sept. 29 romp in the Grade 1 Beldame at Belmont Park.

Mike Smith has ridden Royal Delta in her last four races, starting with an eight-length blowout June 16 at Churchill Downs. "She ran a number
(110 Beyer) that was higher than the boys that day, and she may have bounced off that for a race or two," Smith said.

Royal Delta won her next start by only a neck in the Delaware Handicap, then was second behind Love and Pride while conceding 10 pounds Aug. 26 in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga. She returned to form last out in the Beldame at Belmont, winning by 9 1/2 lengths with a 106 Beyer.

Some 4,400 tons of sand was added to the Santa Anita surface in late summer, and Smith sees a similarity in surfaces. "It's a bit similar to Belmont, we've got some sand in it now," Smith said. Royal Delta "ran a monster race [at Belmont], and if she brings that race, she'll be extremely tough to beat."

Royal Delta will campaign in 2013.

"This isn't going to be her last race," Mott said. "We discussed running Royal Delta, and we have discussed running her in the Classic [next year]."

My Miss Aurelia won the 2011 Juvenile Fillies, then did not start again for nine months due to a lingering shin injury.

"We knew she would be able to make it back," owner-breeder Barbara Banke said. "We just wanted to make sure she was 100 percent."

The wait was worth it. My Miss Aurelia won her comeback at Saratoga, and defeated Questing in the Grade 1 Cotillion at Parx to extend her streak to six. Steve Asmussen trains My Miss Aurelia for Banke and George Bolton. The Ladies' Classic will be her seventh start. Retirement does not beckon.

"I would like to leave her in training as a 4-year-old," Banke said. "I think there are all sorts of things she can do."

My Miss Aurelia shipped to California soon after her Sept. 22 win, and has trained exceptionally well in California. Two starts into her campaign, My Miss Aurelia has an upset chance under Corey Nakatani.

Another unbeaten filly is 10-for-10 Awesome Feather, running in a Breeders' Cup race for the first time since the 2010 Juvenile Fillies. Frank Stronach purchased her for $2.3 million at the 2010 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky mixed sale; soon after a tendon injury showed up.

"It's not an injury that you normally come back from," trainer Chad Brown said. "But there was never a complaint. Mr. Stronach said, look, that's the game, we look forward, not back."

Awesome Feather did make it back, winning twice in late 2011 and another in early 2012 before she was sidelined again, this time with a
suspensory injury. She returned in September with a minor-stakes blowout at Belmont that earned a 108 Beyer Figure. Awesome Feather
will be ridden by Jeffrey Sanchez.

Love and Pride, considering she won Grade 1's this year in New York and California, has fallen under the radar. In the Personal Ensign at Saratoga, she benefited from a weight break and bad luck by rival It's Tricky. In the Zenyatta at Santa Anita, Love and Pride caught a speed-favoring track, set a slow pace, and wired the field.

Maybe she is lucky, maybe she is good. Trainer Todd Pletcher sides with raw talent, while acknowledging skeptics.

"I understand the concerns, but she's getting it done," he said. "You have to give her credit for being versatile enough to sit off the pace, or to make the lead."

John Velazquez rides Love and Pride, who has won 7 of 16.

Grace Hall, as of Tuesday morning, was still at Delaware Park. Travel was interrupted by Hurricane Sandy.

"This little airplane trip, I can't imagine it will be a factor," trainer Tony Dutrow said.

Dutrow heard that the Ladies' Classic field was tough, but the enthusiastic trainer has not wasted time analyzing the competition.

"You could look in the Racing Form, and say, my god, I can't beat this horse, or I can't beat that horse. So I don't even look at it."

Grace Hall, runner-up in the 2011 Juvenile Fillies, returned to form last out with a comfortable win in the Indiana Oaks at Hoosier.

"Grace Hall has been pretty cool whatever she has faced -- six furlongs, seven furlongs, a mile and an eighth, two turns, one turn, whatever jockey rides her, in front or come from behind. I don't think it matters. We'll have to see whose day it is."

Questing is expected to set the pace, while California-based Include Me Out will benefit from a quicker pace and a main track less biased than early in the meet when she finished third in the Zenyatta.