Royal Delta, a 5-year-old daughter of Empire Maker, has in her past two starts assumed her place as the top older female runner in the country, having won the Grade 1 Delaware Handicap by 10 ¾ lengths and the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Invitational Handicap by 4 ½ lengths. Named Champion Three-Year-Old Filly in 2011 and Champion Older Female last year, she seeks to repeat in the Beldame, which she won last year by 9 ½ lengths.
The 3-year-old Princess of Sylmar heads five others attempting to dethrone the queen, and she brings substantial credentials to the table, having won three straight Grade 1 races - the Kentucky Oaks, TVG Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama - in a nine-race career with seven victories.
Not only will she face older opposition for the first time, Princess of Sylmar will need to prove her relax-and-finish style can overcome Royal Delta, who has a penchant for quickly popping out of the gate and winning unchallenged.
"She's a serious filly," Royal Delta's Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said of Princess of Sylmar. "You can't take her for granted, but Royal Delta is doing well. I would say it seems she's on the same path she was last year [winning the Beldame and Distaff]."
Trainer Todd Pletcher understands Royal Delta, the 3-5 morning-line favorite, can be an extremely formidable pace maker, but he does not want to see Princess of Sylmar forced to commit early.
"We will not alter her style, and I think that's really important that [jockey] Javier [Castellano] understand that and not take her out of her own style," Pletcher said of Princess of Sylmar, the 2-1 second choice on the morning line. "What we've got to hope is the last eighth of a mile, the last sixteenth of a mile that Royal Delta comes back to us a little bit. Obviously, we can be helped by someone showing some initiative early, but if they don't do it, we're just going to let our filly run her race and hope for the best."
Trainer Christophe Clement will run Lady Cohiba, 15-1 on the morning line, a 4-year-old filly who recently has shown uncharacteristic speed, making the pace in back-to-back starts, albeit over off tracks. Last time out, she won an off-the-turf running of the $150,000 Glens Falls at 1 1/8 miles on September 2 at Saratoga Race Course.
Roman Invader, a 20-1 long shot, comes off a gate-to-wire score at 12-1 in the Parlo Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on September 19 at Belmont.
Whether Lady Cohiba or Roman Invader present a challenge early to Royal Delta remains to be seen, but Mott said his champion does not have to lock in as the front-runner.
"I'll let Mike worry about that," Mott said, referring to Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith. "She will position herself where she's comfortable. She's been [on the lead] her last few races, but it's not a situation where she has to be on the lead."
Many of the other leading 3-year-old fillies in the country competed last weekend in the Grade 1 Cotillion at Parx Racing, but Pletcher preferred to run Princess of Sylmar in the Beldame in what will be her first start at Belmont Park.
"The Cotillion was the obvious second choice," he said. "The things we didn't like about the Cotillion was backing up from a mile and a quarter [in the Alabama] to a mile and a sixteenth, we were going to carry top weight, and it was run over what I consider to be kind of a quirky surface at Parx. It was more of a gut feeling."
Princess of Sylmar will carry 120 pounds in the Beldame, while the others all tote 123.
Also in the Beldame field is Darley Stable's Centring, a 5-year-old daughter of A.P. Indy who finished third, beaten just 1 ½ lengths, in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Handicap in May, and then twice was defeated by Royal Delta, in the Delaware Handicap and Personal Ensign.
Trainer Tom Albertrani, like Pletcher, hopes the Beldame pace will be contested to enhance Centring's late-running chances.
"She's been running some big races," Albertrani said of Centring, 8-1 on the morning line. "Pace has a lot to do with the way she'll close on the front-runners. We're going to add some blinkers this time to try to get her a little closer."
And Why Not, third in the Delaware Handicap for trainer Michael Matz, completes the field and is 20-1 on the morning line.