By Mark Lamport-Stokes
ARCADIA, California (Reuters) - The 2012 Breeders' Cup opened its $25.5 million two-day program on Friday with a command performance by Royal Delta, a string of upsets and a record 16th win for veteran jockey Mike Smith.
Royal Delta lived up to her billing as the top female horse in the United States by retaining her title in the $2 million Ladies' Classic in stunning fashion at a sun-drenched Santa Anita Park.
With Smith on board, the Kentucky-bred filly took control of the race by the first turn and easily fended off late bursts by My Miss Aurelia and Include Me Out down the stretch.
The previously unbeaten My Miss Aurelia finished one-and-a-half lengths back with Include Me Out in third, a further one-and-a-quarter lengths adrift.
Smith, 47, was elated after pulling ahead of fellow Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey with his 16th career win at the Breeders' Cup, which is billed as the world championship of thoroughbred racing.
"It's incredible to be with the riders on this list," Smith smiled. "It's truly an honor. I hope to be around a few more years to add to it."
Royal Delta, an overwhelming 8-5 favorite when she entered the starting gate, was the only fancied horse to win on Friday on a six-race card.
Other winners in front of a Santa Anita crowd of just over 34,000 were: Zagora in the Filly and Mare Turf; Beholder, who upset favorite Executiveprivilege in the Juvenile Fillies; and Calidoscopio in the Marathon.
French raider Flotilla took the Juvenile Fillies Turf and long-shot Hightail captured the Juvenile Sprint, the first race of the day.
But the stand out on Friday was Royal Delta, who raised comparisons with 2009 Breeders Classic champion Zenyatta, a retired thoroughbred mare who was ridden by Smith for 17 of her 20 starts.
"She is close to it," Smith said when asked how Royal Delta matched up to Zenyatta's impressive physique. "She has that kind of stride. She has a tremendous stride. She does it with ease.
"She actually waits for competition, and once they get to her she locks on them and seems like she can get around them again."
Royal Delta, a daughter of 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, had also been entered for the marquee Breeders' Classic on Saturday but that plan was shelved, mainly due to her trainer Bill Mott.
Mott will have three other horses running in the $5 million Classic, a race he won last year with Drosselmeyer.
"We've got three good chances in there tomorrow, and we're certainly not counting our chickens before they hatch, but ... I think any one of the three has a chance," Mott said.
"I know it's a deep race and there are good horses and horses that have proven themselves well over this race track. You've got to push forward and look to tomorrow."
French-bred mare Zagora stormed home to win the Filly & Mare Turf in what will likely be the last start of her career.
Due to be sold at auction later this month, Martin Schwartz's five-year-old stormed down the home straight with jockey Javier Castellano aboard to overtake the fancied Marketing Mix and hold off the highly favored The Fugue.
Zagora prevailed by three-quarters of a length, giving trainer Chad Brown just his second Breeders Cup win.
"She had everything go her way today," Brown said. "She got the turf she likes, she got a great trip and she's been training great."
Hightail, a 15-1 longshot, upset odds-on favorite Merit Man in the Juvenile Sprint, winning by a nose after a storming late surge from inside the rail.
Suggestions that Hightail might have interfered with Merit Man's line down the stretch were cleared after a post-race inquiry.
Hightail's stunning victory extended Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas's record total of Breeders' Cup wins to 19.
"At my age it's significant," smiled the 77-year-old Lukas. "I don't know how many (wins) there are, but I always thought we could get one more. It's exciting. They don't come that easy."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)