Along for the Ride

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What’s it like to win a Grade 1 stakes with an odds-on champion? Follow along with Bill Mott for a glimpse.

With 23 minutes to post for Sunday’s $600,000 Personal Ensign, Royal Delta is 1-9 in a five-horse field. Mott, her trainer, picks through the girths hanging on the hooks in the paddock. Satisfied – eventually – he takes two and walks the 60 steps to Stall 12 at the end of the row and waits. He’s alone, sort of, while leaning with his left hand on a red padded post. The crowd is across the paddock, waiting. The champion arrives, and brings the people with her. Mott watches, asks assistant Rodolphe Brissett a simple, “All right?” The trainer gets a nod from Brisset, dressed in a suit and a purple Royal Delta Breeders’ Cup hat.

Royal Delta walks a little like she runs, leaning into the bit, and circles the oval ring adjacent to the paddock bar. People stare, take photos, talk in whispers. Trainer Barclay Tagg is there, just to see it. “I’m going to go back and see if I have one like her,” he jokes, then turns serious. “When you’re in the game, and there’s a horse like this, you have to come see.”

Yes you do.

With 15 minutes to post, Mott puts the saddle on, tightens those girths. Owner Ben Leon leans in briefly. Mott smooths the mare’s face, pushes her forelock just so, adjusts the keepers on the bridle. With a “Heads up, please,” she’s out of the stall and headed toward the paddock trees, where she joins rival On Fire Baby and a lead pony. There’s a delay, a hold, in the paddock, surely it’s for the equine ambulances tending to two breakdowns one race earlier, though nobody mentions them. Mott and jockey Mike Smith head to the main walking ring, waiting for the “Riders up” cue. The jockey takes a deep, slow breath. Mott just waits and watches his horse.

NYRA’s Jose Morales gives the signal, Smith gets aboard. Mott tells Leon good luck, speaks briefly to retired trainer Frank Alexander then makes a left turn out the horsepath gate, past the racing office, around two guys carrying chairs who say, “Hey, that’s Billy Mott. He’s got Royal Delta in here.” Briskly, Mott walks down the diagonal path, fist-bumps a guy leaning on the rail, slides a hand under the light like everybody else and gets on the escalator. He doesn’t move a step, just rides up like another man in a sport coat at the races. Once upstairs, he’s back to moving quickly – across the tiles, past the betting windows and out to the boxes. Alone again, he sits in the back right corner, grabs his binoculars and finds his mare. She’s warming up like the others. Satisfied, he checks a green overnight, reads his phone for a few seconds and puts his elbows on the railing behind him. Ten feet away, fans debate the race. “Maybe you should have used the three, she’s 25-1,” says a wife to a husband. “I really like the one,” one buddy tells another. Family and friends join Mott in the box, but he still seems alone.

On the NYRA television feed, the camera zooms in tight on Royal Delta walking toward the gate. She’s sweaty, drippy, wet like she’s been hit with a hose. But Mott knows that. He saw her do it at Delaware Park, her first American start since he decided to take her off the anti-bleeding medication Lasix to help her natural cooling system. She’s 1-5, she’s hot, her trainer’s in his box, people are waiting to see greatness succeed or greatness fail.

It’ll all be over in three minutes – tops.

At post time, Mott stands up and leans back. The gate rattles open, Tom Durkin starts the call “They’re in the gate. And, they’re off. Royal Delta, Mike Smith is sending her. On Fire Baby comes through on her inside . . .”

Mott watches live, through his binoculars. He puts them down after 3 furlongs, picks them back up again after the half-mile split goes on the board, watches her head to the turn. Then it’s a formality. Just the clock ticking and a horse galloping. As Royal Delta storms off the corner and into the stretch, the crowd rises with Mott. She’s alone in mid-stretch. More alone at the wire. He high-fives, then hugs, his wife Tina, accepts some brief congratulations and walks down the aisle as the crowd applauds him, his horse, the performance.

“Nice little horse,” he says with a smile.

And Navratilova was a nice little tennis player.

Royal Delta, owned by Leon’s Besilu Stables, simply overwhelmed Saratoga Sunday. She broke sharply from post two, pressed On Fire Baby through the first quarter-mile in :23.56, then tugged to the front. Smith sat still as water in a glass on a kitchen counter, as the 5-year-old rolled up the backstretch. She had the others laboring early as the half-mile went by in :46.78. On Fire Baby stayed in closest pursuit, followed by Authenticity.

Briefly, maybe, the latter appeared to have a chance on the turn as Royal Delta reached 6 furlongs in 1:10.76, but the hopes fizzled and were never really there. Smith pumped his hands, stoked the fires and Royal Delta won in a gallop – head low, legs churning, reputation building through 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.34. Authenticity stayed on for second, 4 ½ lengths behind the winner, who paid $3.10. Centring was third.  

Royal Delta won for the 12th time in 20 starts, collected $360,000 and all but put her third consecutive Eclipse Award on ice. She picked up a sixth Grade 1 win, surpassed $4.6 million in career earnings and made another lasting impression. Stars always get the royal treatment from Saratoga’s racing fans, but Sunday’s was special. The cheers started at the eighth pole, welcomed her to the winner’s circle and rolled with her back up the stretch to the test barn.

None of it is lost on Mott, who stood on the track and applauded like everyone else when Smith brought Royal Delta back to the winner’s circle.

“It’s pretty nice. You think about it a little more with horses like her, and I’ve been stall-walking a little,” he said. “I don’t ever take it for granted, no matter how good they are. She’s pretty special.”

Mott, who trained her dam Delta Princess, has been with Royal Delta since the beginning. She won her debut late in her 2-year-old year at Belmont Park, by a dozen lengths, added the Alabama (over favorite It’s Tricky) the next season en route to the 3-year-old filly championship. She romped again in the Breeders’ Cup to end that season. The book nearly closed when the estate of breeder Saud bin Khaled sold Royal Delta five days later at Keeneland. Leon went to $8.5 million to outbid Adena Springs to get her, and sent her back to Mott. She’s won seven times since.

Like Mott, Leon appreciates the opportunity to be part of Royal Delta’s world.

“It’s a feeling that is very difficult to explain,” he said. “A horse like this, it’s a horse that comes around once maybe 10, 20 years globally. My job as the owner is just to give her the opportunity. It’s not because of me, it’s for her. Because she is so special. Special to me as the owner, special to Bill Mott as the trainer, special to Mike as the rider, special to the breed in general.”

Like his horse, Leon rode the wave of the crowd’s appreciation.

“It’s like they own her, absolutely,” he said. “I would feel the same way if I was just a fan. I’m lucky. I get a little uptight but once I see her extending that lead I begin to relax. I think she’s at the top of her game.”

In the Besilu silks, she’s finished first or second in every American start. Two tries in Dubai are the only marks on her record, and she’s bounced out of both to find success.

“She did her job again,” said Mott. “We just try to put her in a position to do it. All the assistants and everyone else play a role. They all do something every day. Over here, she goes this way and that way, you’ve got to roll with her, get her out there so she can do her thing.”