10/30/2013 8:43AM

Breeders' Cup: Royal Delta's three-peat bid in Distaff is highlight of Friday card

Barbara D. Livingston
Royal Delta on Friday will try to become the first horse to win the Breeders' Cup Distaff three times.

ARCADIA, Calif. – When Royal Delta lined up in the starting gate a year ago at Santa Anita against two undefeated champion fillies, Awesome Feather and My Miss Aurelia, it seemed as though the Breeders’ Cup’s championship dirt race for females had reached its zenith.

But, like the boys in Spinal Tap, they raised it one louder this year.

Royal Delta is back to defend her title, and as good as last year’s race was, this year’s might be better. Royal Delta, now 5, heads into the gate Friday for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff seeking to become the first three-time winner of the race, and only the second three-time winner in Breeders’ Cup history.

But for Royal Delta to prevail, she will have to defeat last year’s champion 2-year-old filly, Beholder, and Princess of Sylmar, the Kentucky Oaks winner and the pro-tem leader among 3-year-old fillies. Throw in multiple stakes winners Authenticity and Close Hatches, and this field could be the strongest in the race’s history.

The Distaff is the highlight of Friday’s card, the first of two consecutive days of Breeders’ Cup racing at Santa Anita, which is hosting the event for the seventh time. This Breeders’ Cup, the 30th, encompasses 14 races, with five Friday and nine more, including the $5 million Classic, to follow Saturday.

The Distaff, one of the seven original Breeders’ Cup races in 1984, has returned to its birth name after being saddled with the unfortunate “Ladies’ Classic” name from 2008-2012.

[BREEDERS’ CUP 2013: Fields with DRF odds and comments]

The ramifications of this year’s Distaff cannot be overstated. The Eclipse Award for older female is on the line, with Royal Delta – a two-time champion – the acknowledged leader, but Authenticity is an upset win from potentially wresting it away.

More significantly, though, this race could decide the 3-year-old filly title. Princess of Sylmar is the leader, having won four straight Grade 1 races, including a head-to-head match against Beholder in the Kentucky Oaks. Both subsequently have defeated older horses. But should Beholder win the Distaff, she would have as many Grade 1 wins this year as Princess of Sylmar, but one more would be against older runners, and they would have split their two meetings.

That’s the risk.

“You can’t approach these races with reservations regarding what might happen regarding 3-year-old filly [honors],” said Todd Pletcher, who trains Princess of Sylmar and the 4-year-old Authenticity. “You have to try to take advantage of these opportunities. You can’t assume it’s the same next year.”

The reward, though, could be huge.

If Princess of Sylmar wins, she would be a viable candidate for Horse of the Year if there are upsets in key Breeders’ Cup races Saturday, most notably the Classic, which features the current leader for Horse of the Year honors, Game On Dude.

Royal Delta and Beholder are among the eight horses who won Breeders’ Cup races in 2012 and are back this year. Beholder will attempt to become the first filly to win the Juvenile Fillies and later the Distaff. Beholder is based at Santa Anita, where she has won five times in six starts.

“You couldn’t ask for one to be doing any better,” said Beholder’s trainer, Richard Mandella. “It’s nice to be at home, but it’s always better to have the best horse.”

The Distaff is the 10th race on an 11-race card that begins at 10:40 a.m. Pacific time. The first Breeders’ Cup race is race 6, the Marathon, at 1 3/4 miles on dirt. Post time for the Marathon is 1:45 p.m.

Following the Marathon, in order, are the Juvenile Turf, at one mile on grass, the Dirt Mile for 3-year-olds and up, and the Juvenile Fillies Turf, also at one mile on grass.

The Dirt Mile includes such well-known runners as Alpha and Golden Ticket, who dead-heated for the win in the 2012 Travers Stakes, Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents, and Haskell winner Verrazano, who will be making the final start of his career.

All five Breeders’ Cup races will be shown live by NBCSN in a four-hour telecast that begins at 1 p.m. Pacific. Post time for the Distaff is 4:35 p.m.

There is a pick six, with a guaranteed pool of $1 million, beginning with race 5, the Twilight Derby at 1 1/8 miles on grass for 3-year-olds. There also is a $1.5 million guaranteed pick four on races 7-10. The Distaff is the final leg of both the pick six and that pick four.

There also is a pick five beginning on the day’s first race and a pick four on races 3-6. There is also a special daily double on the Distaff and the Classic.

Following the Distaff is the $150,000 President of the United Arab Emirates Cup Invitational, a 1 1/16-mile race for Arabians. It was placed at the end of the day to keep it out of the pick six and pick four, though it will be part of a pick 3 that includes the Juvenile Fillies Turf and the Distaff.