ARCADIA, Calif. -- "Are you OK, Mama?" Bill Mott asked, his tone consolatory, as he looked into Royal Delta's stall. Ducking underneath the webbing and entering warily, the trainer patted the big filly, smoothly glided his hand along her spine and then tenderly examined her hip, where she had a superficial abrasion, a souvenir from the previous day's travel to Santa Anita from New York.
She just might show the field her abrasion in Friday's $2 million Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. It's an extraordinary and unprecedented race, and not only because it brings together three champions -- queens, really. Lock three imperious, uncompromising monarchs in a room, and this is what you get: the Ladies' Classic.
They'll argue about something even more important than championships Friday; they'll argue about hegemony and identity. The Ladies' Classic is extraordinary simply because these fillies have defined themselves in extraordinary terms. Awesome Feather and My Miss Aurelia have both returned from serious injury, and both are unbeaten. And Royal Delta, who won the race a year ago, possesses the kind of talent that can overwhelm good horses and seasoned observers.
Despite its extravagance, its championship implications and its international tenor, despite its 15 races with purses totaling $25.5 million, this Breeders' Cup doesn't have in its cast a charismatic superstar such as Curlin or Zenyatta or Goldikova who can transcend the game and engage a popular awareness. But this Breeders' Cup has this Ladies' Classic and its three queens.
From inside Royal Delta's stall, Mott told a groom, "She likes her feed tub on the other side of the stall. Let's move it." The queen, you see, gets what the queen wants, where she wants it. She also likes a window. Yes, her stall has a window, which overlooks a walking area, and this morning she'll probably think that the activity out there has been choreographed just for her entertainment.
Mott moved gingerly around the stall, patting the big filly affectionately, talking to her in soothing tones. She, in turn, nipped half-heartedly at his arm, threatened to kick him, as if to put the Hall of Fame trainer in his place. Malevolent velleities are part of her royal demeanor.
Since returning from Dubai, where she finished ninth in the world's richest race, apparently regarding the synthetic surface there as something beneath her regal bother, Royal Delta has won three of her four races. In the Personal Ensign Handicap at Saratoga, she became anxious and unsettled in the saddling area, Mott explained, and so wasn't warmed up sufficiently, and although she didn't run poorly that day, she didn't sparkle either. She finished second. But she's also capable of jaw-dropping, sensational performances, such as the one she delivered in the Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs, where she won by eight lengths, or in the Beldame Invitational at Belmont Park, where she won by more than nine lengths, or in last year's Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, where she won by five on her way to being named the champion 3-year-old filly.
And so what will happen Friday when the regal and audacious Royal Delta meets My Miss Aurelia, who's also physically imposing and who never has considered the possibility that there might be another creature on this planet who's equally talented? My Miss Aurelia has trained "fabulously" here at Santa Anita, according to her trainer, Steve Asmussen.
Last year, My Miss Aurelia won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies event. It was her fourth victory in as many outings and the culmination of a championship campaign that produced whispers of potential greatness. But she had a serious shin injury and didn't race again for nine months.
"They did the right thing by her," Asmussen said of My Miss Aurelia's owners, Stonestreet Stables and George Bolton, "waiting until she was 100 percent to bring her back."
She began her comeback with a minor stakes victory, and then, in only her second start of the year, in the Cotillion Stakes, My Miss Aurelia ran down Questing, a formidable filly who had won her previous three outings by more than 18 total lengths. Since then, Asmussen said, My Miss Aurelia has progressed steadily.
Three-year-olds often take a significant step forward in the spring. My Miss Aurelia, however, because of her injury, wasn't racing in the spring. She's aimed at taking that significant step Friday.
"She's awesome," Asmussen said, clearly expressing both affection and respect for the queen of his barn. "She's a champion. That's who she is, a champion, and she'll run accordingly."
Awesome Feather is stabled nearby. And given what happened two years ago, it's just shy of miraculous that she's here at all, at Santa Anita, awaiting the Ladies' Classic. In 2010, she concluded a spotless campaign with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs. Her sixth win of the season guaranteed her a championship, of course, but it also attracted the attention of Frank Stronach, whose Adena Springs had won multiple Eclipse Awards as North America's top breeder. Also the principal owner of Santa Anita, Stronach purchased Awesome Feather almost immediately and transferred the filly to trainer Chad Brown, who, as it turned out, got more than he expected.
"It took a couple of weeks to show up," Brown said, explaining the injury that Awesome Feather brought with her to his barn. "The tendon just didn't look normal."
Brown speculated that she probably injured herself while she was winning that final stakes race of her juvenile campaign, winning, it should be noted, with regal determination. Just as she never capitulated to any rival, she refused to give in to an injury. As it turned out, the suspicious-looking tendon in her left foreleg had a lesion and was bowed.
"For a horse to come back with a tendon like that -- well, it happens once in a lifetime," Brown said. "She's an extraordinary horse."
No miracle therapy could explain it, no wonder drug or innovative procedure. Her comeback involved considerable patience; "a lot of jogging," Brown said; and, most of all, an overpowering will to race.
"She was the therapy," Brown said. "It was all her."
Awesome Feather returned 11 months after her Breeders' Cup victory to win a minor stakes; a month after that, she won the Gazelle Stakes at Aqueduct. She began this year with a victory in the Sunshine Millions Distaff at Gulfstream Park, and then, returning nine months later, she won the Nasty Storm Stakes at Belmont by more than 11 lengths.
So she's a perfect 10, even though she hardly looks the part. She's neither big nor powerful. She's a rather ordinary-looking bay, "nondescript," Brown called her. Yet there's a confident air about Awesome Feather, an unmistakable aplomb, and she watches everything with ardent eyes shiny as marbles.
"When she's on the track, you can see what kind of engine she has," Brown said. "She's very willing, sometimes over-willing. Sometimes, I think we hold her back. She wants to run; she wants to train."
Brown said he's just proud to be associated with such a horse, proud to be here with Awesome Feather for what he described as the "greatest Ladies' Classic in the history of the race."
And it might just be. It certainly has never been more regal.