By Mike Farrell
The ways and wiles of the graded stakes committee are sometimes inscrutable to mere mortals. The rationale for some races holding exalted positions with others suffering ignominious downgrades is frequently hard to fathom.
A case in point: the 83rd renewal of the $400,000 Delaware Handicap (G2) for fillies and mares on Saturday at Delaware Park.
The feature event at the charming track located outside Wilmington was a Grade 1 stakes until 2018 when it was knocked down a peg.
A downgrade is certainly in order if a race fails to attract top-level runners. That didn’t happen here.
A scan of recent Del ‘Cap winners includes Royal Delta (2012, 2013), Songbird (2017) and Elate (2018, 2019).
Consider their resumes, aside from the Del ‘Cap victories. Royal Delta was a two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (G1) in 2011 and 2012. Songbird, the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) winner, finished with a remarkable nine Grade 1 victories. Elate captured the 2017 Alabama (G1) in a sterling career that concluded with an excellent fourth-place finish against the boys last November in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
That roster of achievement by recent participants makes a compelling argument for restoration of the coveted Grade 1 designation.
The Del ‘Cap edition on tap this weekend continues the tradition of luring Grade 1 winners. The unquestioned star of the show — and the 6-5 morning line favorite — is Dunbar Road for trainer Chad Brown.
Dunbar Road served notice of things to come with an 8 ¾-length debut victory in March of last year at Gulfstream Park. She stepped right up to the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) and finished a hard-grinding second, beaten only a half-length in her stakes debut.
She lacked enough qualifying points for the Kentucky Oaks, so Brown opted to regroup in New York. Dunbar Road responded with a flourish, reeling off three straight victories including the Mother Goose (G2) and the Alabama (G1).
She was less successful when facing older fillies and mares in the final two starts of 2019. Dunbar Road didn’t display her usual kick in the Spinster Stakes (G1), finishing third to Blue Prize.
In the rematch in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, Blue Prize again powered to the victory. Dunbar Road lagged behind for most of the race at Santa Anita before rallying to secure fifth place.
Freshened during the winter, Dunbar Road returned with a victory in the Shawnee Stakes at Churchill Downs in late May.
“She broke a little slow but she’s so classy,” regular rider Jose Ortiz said after the Shawnee. “I’m very happy she’s back.”
Ortiz, however, won’t be back on Saturday. He’ll be riding at Keeneland as we work our way through this pandemic-jumbled season. Brother Irad Ortiz, Jr. picks up the mount.
The latest win improved her record to 5-for-8 and should mark the seventh time Dunbar Road goes to the gate as the wagering favorite. She has post 2 in the eight-horse field.
The Del ‘Cap, traditionally contested at 1 1/4 miles, will be shortened to 1 1/8 miles for the first time. That should suit Dunbar Road just fine, coming of the Shawnee win at 1 1/16 miles.
As often happens in an East Coast stakes, the race comes down to Chad vs Todd.
Pletcher counters with a pair, the second-and-third choices on the morning line: Bellera (7-2) and Always Shopping (5-1).
Bellera didn’t appreciate the surface switch last time out, finishing up the track as the 2-1 favorite in a Florida-bred grass stakes at Gulfstream Park. Back on dirt, she should be a more prominent factor and sports a snappy 3-for-4 record at nine furlongs on the main track. Trevor McCarthy rides from post 4.
Always Shopping hasn’t built on her victory in the 2019 Gazelle Stakes (G2) at Aqueduct. She is winless in three races since then. Carol Cedeno, the meet’s leading rider, picks up the mount who breaks from post 5.
Pletcher will be looking for a record-breaking Del ‘Cap win. He is currently tied with Henry Clark for the top spot in the stakes with four wins.
Vexatious (12-1), Wicked Awesome (15-1), Lucky Move (8-1), Saracosa (10-1) and Over Thinking (15-1) complete the field.
Turf fillies are also spotlighted in the $125,000 Robert G. Dick Memorial (G3) at 1 3/8 miles. Gentle Ruler, last year’s winner, is back to defend her title as the 3-2 favorite. Graham Motion, an eight-time winner of this race, sends out Mrs. Sippy, the 5-2 second choice.
The Delaware Handicap tops a 10-race card that begins at 1:15 p.m. ET. Fans are welcome to attend but should be aware that there are restrictions. According to the track’s website, total capacity will be limited to 3,000 on the grounds. Face masks are required and temperature checks and health questionnaires will be administered at the entrance gates.