ARCADIA, Calif. -- Benjamin Leon is a man who likes to do things right.
He has been that way since he came to this country from his native Cuba as an exile at age 16, $5 in his pocket and a job soon acquired in Florida as a dishwasher making $41.09 per week at the Shelborne Hotel. He may have also worked as a paperboy delivering the Miami Herald and he may have stocked grocery shelves, but he was the best paperboy and the best grocery store employee he could be.
Just over 50 years later, Leon has applied his determination and resources to the Thoroughbred racing game. The same business savvy and competitive nature that enabled him to build his fortune as a real estate investor and the head of Leon Medical Centers -- seven Medicare-only centers in Florida's Miami-Dade County -- puts him front and center on the sport's biggest weekend with defending Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic winner Royal Delta.
Royal Delta is a striking 4-year-old filly, one who has overpowered her competition in races like the Sept. 29 Beldame Invitational at Belmont Park, where she romped by 9 1/2 lengths for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. Leon has traveled to every race to watch her run since buying her for a near-record $8.5 million at the Keeneland November sale after her 2011 Breeders' Cup win. He bought Royal Delta, he said, not only to enjoy the thrills of victory she has delivered with three victories and two seconds from six starts in 2012, but to enhance the broodmare band and Thoroughbred breeding operation he is steadily building on his 647-acre Florida farm.
"You look for a filly for conformation purposes, you choose her," he said. "You look for a filly with pedigree, you choose her. You look for a filly with racing ability, you choose her. She's a horse that doesn't come around very often, and to me she represents the ideal Thoroughbred we would love to breed. She's what we all aim for."
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Leon is no stranger to the equine industry. For more than three decades, he showed and bred Paso Fino horses, a breed known for its striking looks and eye-catching gaited movements. His Besilu Stable was one of the most respected producers of Paso Finos in the world, but as the years went by, the market did not lend itself to continued development.
"Paso Finos are minute in scale compared [to] Thoroughbreds," the owner remarked. "On the business side, I don't believe there is a future for them, and in Thoroughbreds, there is."
In 2008, Leon bought his first Thoroughbred broodmare. In the four years since, he has steadily rolled over his equine holdings from the show world to the racetrack. In 2010, his first year buying at public auction, he purchased yearlings for sales-topping figures at Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton. Last year, at the Keeneland November sale, he was the biggest spender, paying $22.4 million for nine horses.
"I love horses. I enjoy horses. I enjoy and love breeding horses, and trying to breed that one great horse is what really motivates the heck out of me," he said. "Still, I'm very much aware of the reality of the sport. You're going to lose a hell of a lot more than you're going to win, and succeeding is a challenge."
Business savvy came into play with Leon's entrance to the Thoroughbred market; he purchased the majority of his stock from a soft market in the middle of the economic downturn. Now he is done buying for a while, and he told reporters he will not be active at the upcoming November sale. He also did not attend the September sale at Keeneland, where he purchased 13 horses for $8,175,000 as the second-highest buyer in 2011.
"The recession opened a world of opportunity because it has been the time to buy and not to sell," he said. "The same thing has happened with real estate, airplanes, lots of industries. Prices of Thoroughbreds went down like 40 percent compared to what they were a few years before that, and I think I made a very solid investment. I do have a lot of money invested, because I am very serious about the business. I'm not trying to buy the most expensive horses because they're the most expensive, but I am willing to spend the money when everything comes together and it feels right to do that."
That was the situation with Royal Delta; Leon fought off kingpin owner Frank Stronach, whose holdings include a vast Thoroughbred breeding and racing operation and the very oval the filly will race over Friday in the Breeders' Cup. Stronach also owns Royal Delta's main competition in the Ladies' Classic, the undefeated Awesome Feather.
"Opposed to many people who come into the Thoroughbred world as new owners these days, I'm a horseman," said Leon. "I think you know you're a true horseman when you enjoy the process as much as [the] end result, breeding and seeing those foals grow up, hoping the horse is the real deal, being able to critique and be around the horses and touch them and see them and work with the team that is working with you that makes a big difference."
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Leon owns 56 Thoroughbreds, but you won't see the maroon and white silks of his Besilu Stables frequently flashing at racetracks across the world just yet. Many of his horses are broodmares, weanlings and yearlings. Of his operation's first 15-horse, 2-year-old crop, only one filly and one colt have started -- just this past Sunday, unusually late in the juvenile year. The filly, Tapicat, finished third. The colt, Bold Dance, was fifth.
"Neither of the two won, but they're both very good," Leon said. "Sometimes you have to give them a race or two, be patient. You have to give each horse the opportunity for that individual to give you back what he or she can give."
Leon's business plan calls for 25 top foundation broodmares producing around 20 foals each year, and he plans to enter the commercial market by selling his horses at auction as well as keeping a few to race. His farm has produced 10 homebreds thus far, and 10 mares are expected to drop foals in 2013.
On the racetrack, Mott conditions seven of Leon's runners, with two more expected to ship to him soon, and two horses are headed to New York-based conditioner Chad Brown. In addition, three runners will ship to Dubai to race there under the supervision of Satish Seemar and his Zabeel Stables. The business is still under slow development; of 17 runners started in 2012, Besilu has a 4-4-1 record, and three of those wins are Royal Delta's.
"I am a very patient man, and I know enough about horses to know patience is the biggest virtue a horse needs," Leon said. "I'm not an owner pushing the trainer when my horse is racing. I think a lot of horses break because they get pushed too early. And I'm very, very aware of the reality of the game. Not every one of them is going to be a Royal Delta."
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Friday, Royal Delta is the star attraction on the first of two top-class Breeders' Cup cards. She will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who won the Ladies' Classic at Santa Anita with another great runner, Zenyatta, in 2008 and 2009. The question is, which Royal Delta will appear?
Her connections would love nothing better than to see her geared down and cruising to the line with an open advantage on the field, as she's done in multiple performances this year, but her victory is no sure thing against tough runners such as Awesome Feather, My Miss Aurelia (another undefeated contender and the 2011 Juvenile Fillies victress), the talented Questing and Love and Pride, who scored an upset at the Personal Ensign Stakes this summer at Saratoga when she held off Royal Delta by half a length.
You know how many disappointments I've had? A heck of a lot for every outstanding thing that has happened.
”-- Benjamin Leon, Royal Delta owner
That was one of a few disappointments that have come with Royal Delta in 2012; earlier in the season, she shipped overseas to the prestigious Dubai World Cup but ran ninth against the boys. Still, it is a race Leon would like to target with her again in 2013. Although things didn't work out this year when the filly encountered traffic trouble heading for home, he believes she can win and make history as the first female runner to take it.
"You know how many disappointments I've had?" he asked. "A heck of a lot for every outstanding thing that has happened. But nothing disappoints me to [the] point of getting out of the game. Horses teach us every day, and we learn from them more than we do from most people."
From Royal Delta, Leon has learned what it feels like to campaign a truly talented runner. Friday afternoon, she could carry herself to the top of her division with a Breeders' Cup victory.
"What do I expect from her? I expect her to win," her owner remarked. "I have a lot of respect for the other fillies and mares that are in that race, but we know she's an outstanding filly, and if she has a good day and she runs her race as she's capable of doing, she will win. I have all the trust in the world in her that she'll do the best she can, and that's good enough for me."
Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning turf writer who covers horse racing for The Blood-Horse magazine in Lexington, Ky. Follow her on Twitter @bh_cnovak and read more of her work at www.bloodhorse.com.