Something just wasn't quite right with Royal Delta when she finished second in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap this summer at Churchill Downs. The race wasn't a total disgrace - she finished behind a filly in Funny Disposition who's never lost on the dirt at Churchill - but Bill Mott went searching for answers.
Thankfully for Royal Delta and her connections, Ben Leon Jr.'s Besilu Stables, Mott's got plenty of experience to draw on and figure issues like this out.
The Hall of Fame trainer determined that treating the champion mare with the anti-bleeding medication Lasix was having an effect on her electrolyte and natural cooling systems. Royal Delta was taken off Lasix for the Delaware Handicap, which she won in a gallop last month, and she won't run on it today when she seeks redemption in the $600,000 Personal Ensign Handicap.
"We just thought after the race at Churchill she looked like maybe she was in a little distress," Mott said Saturday morning after wrapping up training early. "Maybe a little distress. She wasn't handling the heat real well and the combination of that and the Lasix I guess the Lasix sometimes can cause an electrolyte imbalance."
Mott likened the condition the 5-year-old Empire Maker mare was dealing with to the thumps, the common name for the condition known as synchronous diaphragmatic flutter, basically a thumping noise in a horse's abdomen not unlike hiccups. The body convulses when a horse has the thumps and dehydration or a high temperature often triggers the condition. Royal Delta never trains on Lasix, didn't race on it when she made two unsuccessful starts in the Dubai World Cup, so the decision to not treat her was pretty simple for Mott.
Royal Delta was noticeably sweaty in the paddock prior to the 1 ¼-mile Delaware Handicap, but Mott said that was because she "hadn't lost five gallons of water before the race," referring to the diuretic effects of Lasix. Her cooling system working properly, Royal Delta heated up on the track, opened a big lead early and crushed her competition, winning by 10 ¾ lengths for her fifth Grade 1 victory.
Royal Delta won back-to-back editions of the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic in 2011 and 2012 and one of her other Grade 1 triumphs came at Saratoga in the 2011 Alabama. She's also lost at Saratoga, finishing third in the 2011 Coaching Club American Oaks and second in last year's Personal Ensign.
Mott was still beaming over the reception Royal Delta got by the big crowd at Delaware Park this year. Standing in his shedrow on the Oklahoma Training Track with the small flower garland the mare earned for her emphatic victory, Mott talked about the appreciation the fans gave Royal Delta.
"It was exciting to watch her," he said. "It wasn't with the biggest crowd in the world at Delaware, but when she left the eighth pole they were cheering. It wasn't like 'go-go-go' kind of cheering, it was like, whistling and appreciation. That was kind of nice to see. I was able to hear the noise surrounding me and the people really gave her a nice welcome to the finish line.
"People enjoy watching good horses. There's an appreciation for it still, whether it's at Delaware Park or here at Saratoga."
Royal Delta will need a top effort to get a warm reception today. It will come if she gets it done, even if much of the energy from the big weekend is sapped during Saturday's Travers Day card.
Standing in the way are the 1 1/8-mile trip and just four opponents. She's only faced one before, the fourth-place finisher at Delaware in Darley Stable's Centring for trainer Tom Albertrani. The two main opponents are clearly On Fire Baby, winner of the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap off a nearly year-long layoff this spring at Oaklawn, and Authenticity, who bypassed the Delaware race and won the Grade 3 Shuvee here the same afternoon for Padua Stables and trainer Todd Pletcher.
On Fire Baby shipped in from trainer Gary Hartlage's base at Churchill Downs this week and set up camp in a cozy corner of Ian Wilkes' barn at the back of Clare Court. The gray filly missed 11 months after her last trip to New York, a fourth in last year's Acorn.
"We just didn't like the way she was," said Hartlage. "We sent her to the clinic, ran bone scans on her, never really came up with much, just a couple of bruises here and there. We didn't know what to do with her so we just gave her some time off. We tried to get her back in the fall and she just did something like a little strain to her stifle. It wasn't that big, but we stopped and sent her to Florida for a couple of months. We figured we'd start this year fresh and she's come back great. She's as sound as she can be."
Obviously. She wired the field in April's Apple Blossom, knocking off Tiz Miz Sue and Don't Tell Sophia at better than 12-1. The gray daughter of Smoke Glacken returned to finish a head behind Authenticity in the La Troienne at Churchill May 3. Hartlage had planned to take on Royal Delta in the Fleur de Lis in June, but a virus sidelined the Anita Cauley homebred. Hartlage said the 4-year-old filly is back to perfect health, and looks forward to the challenge today.
"That virus knocked her whole system down, it wasn't a soundness thing," the trainer said. "We were lucky because she's over it now. She's big and sound, weighs about twelve-hundred pounds. We're ready, bring it on."
As the 5-1 third choice, Fire Baby breaks from the rail for regular jockey Joe Johnson and will likely be forwardly placed if not on the lead. Hartlage won't worry about strategy too much, because he knows it's potentially pointless.
"I think the first turn will be a lot of the race," he said. "You can plan what you're going to do but it might not happen. You break one step slow or break on the go, you're changing everything anyway. I would really be surprised if she doesn't run real good. She's training great, really likes it here, and she settled in really good."
Authenticity ousted On Fire Baby in the La Troiene, and came back to finish second in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps at Belmont in late May. The 6-year-old mare, 7-2 second choice behind Royal Delta, comes off a powerful win over the track and distance in the Shuvee July 20. John Velazquez, who engineered an upset of Royal Delta in last year's Personal Ensign (with Love And Pride) will be aboard.
A typical top race from Royal Delta will most likely result in another win for the mare who might wind up in the Breeders' Cup Classic against males by the end of the year. Mott knows all too well that predicting something like that is unwise.
"I hope she will run well," he said. "I guess I've been doing this long enough to know that what you expect and what you get sometimes is not the same. If she shows up with her A-game, she'll be tough to beat."
The Personal Ensign is one of two stakes on the 10-race card, along with the Idle Rich going 1 3/16 miles on the Mellon Turf Course.
Imagining, 10th in the Grade 2 Dixie and part of the group of Shug McGaughey-trained runners that spent time at Fair Hill this spring and summer, is the 9-5 choice with meet leader Javier Castellano named to ride. Atigun, second two starts back in the Grade 3 Louisville Handicap, is also in the field at 5-2 for trainer Ken McPeek. Eagle Poise, Sky Blazer, Hobbs, Sandyinthesun and Star Channel complete the field.
Additional reporting by Joe Clancy.