ARCADIA, Calif. -- Her name is Royal Delta, race fans, and she could be the latest in a recent line of fabulous females to win Horse of the Year.
The dark bay filly's convincing defence of her US$2 million Ladies' Classic title against a star-studded field not only stamped her as the queen of American racing but could crown her as the best of 2012.
She made a compelling argument for it with a 1 1/2-length victory at the Breeders' Cup on Friday, and was the only favourite to win in the six world championship races at Santa Anita.
As Horse of the Year, she would be in heady company with Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Havre de Grace. But her candidacy will hinge on what happens in Saturday's nine Breeders' Cup races, especially the $5 million Classic.
Royal Delta gave Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott his second consecutive win and fifth overall in the Ladies' Classic, putting him in position to sweep the weekend's biggest races, a feat he accomplished last year. He has three runners in the Classic, a race he won last year with Drosselmeyer.
"We're certainly not counting our chickens before they hatch," Mott said. "I think any one of the three has a chance."
Jockey Mike Smith earned his 16th victory in the event's 29-year history, breaking a tie for most wins with fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey.
"I hope to be around a few more years to add to it," the 47-year-old rider said.
Royal Delta was the 8-5 favourite in the field of eight fillies and mares, considered one of the deepest fields among the 15 Breeders' Cup races worth $25 million -- a fact that could bolster her Horse of the Year chances. She ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.80 and paid $5.40, $3.60 and $2.60. She won by 2 1/2 lengths last year with Jose Lezcano aboard.
This time, Royal Delta took charge early, making her way to the lead on a brisk pace. Turning for home, it appeared My Miss Aurelia and Include Me Out were going to overtake Royal Delta, but Smith applied a left-handed whip and she dug in gamely to hold off the challenge.
"She's just brilliant, she really is," Smith said. "I was always taught when you're on a talented horse stay out of their way. I felt confident all the way around there."
My Miss Aurelia returned $5.80 and $4, losing for the first time in seven career races.
"I hate that she didn't win, but I just love this filly," trainer Steve Asmussen said. "She never blinks."
Include Me Out was another 1 1/4 lengths back in third and paid $5.20 to show.
Awesome Feather, the 2-1 second choice owned by Stronach Stables of Aurora, Ont., came in undefeated in 10 races but finished sixth.
Questing was eased down the backstretch, but the on-call veterinarian said there was no apparent injury to the three-year-old filly.
Royal Delta caused Mott some worry on Monday when she arrived from New York with a gash on her right hip that required stitches. She was injured loading on a flight that left in the early morning hours to beat Superstorm Sandy.
"Whew, I can tell you I feel a whole lot better right now," Mott said. "It's a real sigh of relief and a big joy to watch her run."
After Royal Delta's win last year at Churchill Downs, she was sold for $8.5 million to Benjamin Leon. Mott didn't think he would be training the filly anymore and felt sad the day he had to walk her out of his barn.
"It was like walking to my best friend's funeral," he said earlier this week.
Mott attended the Keeneland sale and congratulated Leon after his purchase, not realizing that a couple weeks later Royal Delta would be back in his care.
"It's such a matter of pride to have a horse of that quality," Mott said. "I thought she could do it again if things went well and they did."
With two Ladies' Classic titles to her credit, Mott and Leon were already looking ahead to next year with Royal Delta. They plan to run her in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, where she finished ninth in March, and then have her close out her career at the Breeders' Cup.
Six different jockeys, trainers and owners won each of the Breeders' Cup races in front of 34,619 fans on a sunny day.
The biggest upset was Calidoscopio's 4 1/4-length victory in the $500,000 Marathon, jockey Aaron Gryder's first Breeders' Cup win. The 17-1 shot from Argentina paid $36.40 to win and at nine became the oldest Breeders' Cup champion.
Commander, based at Vancouver's Hastings Park racetrack, trained by Troy Taylor, and owned by Canadians Glen Todd and Patrick Kinsella's North American Thoroughbred Horse Company, was ninth in the Marathon.
Age also played a part in the second-biggest upset. Sent off at 15-1 odds, Hightail kicked off the two-day world championships with a nose victory in the $500,000 Juvenile Sprint, giving Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas his leading 19th Breeders' Cup victory at 77.
"At my age it's significant," Lukas said. "I still have the passion for it and I train every day and ride every day. I'm not going to retire. I'm going to ride out there one morning, fall off the pony. They will harrow me under and if the harrow goes over me a couple of times that will be the end of it."
In the $1 million Juvenile Fillies Turf, 11-1 shot Flotilla rallied to win by 1 1/4 lengths and paid $24.80. Trainer Mikel Delzangles and jockey Christophe Lemaire, both from France, won their first Breeders' Cup race.
There were three horses with ties to Canada in the Juvenile Fillies Turf race.
Tara From the Cape, co-owned by Canadians Glenn Harvey and Steven Duffield of Debmar Stables, placed fourth. Nancy O, based at Toronto's Woodbine racetrack with trainer Carolyn Costigan and co-owned by her father Robert Costigan of Mississauga, Ont., placed ninth.
Spring Venture, another horse based at Woodbine with trainer Mark Casse, was 13th.
Zagora won the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf by three-quarters of a length at 9-1 odds. She paid $20.40 to win under Javier Castellano for owner Martin Schwartz, who made his fortune trading on Wall Street.
Marketing Mix -- Ontario-bred by Sean Fitzhenry -- returned $6 and $3.80, while 9-5 favourite The Fugue from Britain was another half-length back in third and paid $2.80 to show. The Fugue got trapped on the rail.
Beholder led all the way to win the $2 million Juvenile Fillies, holding off 3-2 favourite Executiveprivilege by one length.
"She ran her heart out. It was a big effort and being at her home track sure helps," trainer Richard Mandella said. "I guess Santa Anita still has the magic."
It was the 13th Breeders' Cup victory for jockey Garrett Gomez and the seventh for Mandella, who last won at the world championships in 2003 when he had four victories.
Beholder paid $9.80 to win, while trainer Bob Baffert's Executiveprivilege had her five-race winning streak ended after she drifted out in the stretch.
Spring in the Air, based at Woodbine with trainer Mark Casse and Ontario-bred by Winstar Farm, was fifth.