After overexerting herself early when flopping as the even-money favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1), Don Alberto Stable’s Unique Bella rebounded courtesy of a stalk-and-pounce trip in the $301,035 La Brea (G1) on Santa Anita’s Tuesday opener. The Jerry Hollendorfer trainee subdued market rival Paradise Woods in deep stretch to earn her first Grade 1 laurel, hopefully a harbinger of bigger and better things to come in 2018.
Although Paradise Woods was tabbed as the slight favorite at 8-5 on the morning line, shading Unique Bella’s 9-5, bettors reversed the order of preference in their first head-to-head clash. The wagering public bet Unique Bella down to 6-5 favoritism, keeping faith in the Tapit blueblood, and dispatched Paradise Woods as the 2-1 second choice.
Unique Bella wasn’t as quick into stride as a few of her sharper rivals, but that worked to her advantage as a contentious pace unfolded. Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who didn’t enjoy his finest hour aboard beaten 1-5 shot Collected in the San Antonio (G2) earlier on the card, delivered a more representative ride here. Tipping her out into the clear, Smith ensured that Unique Bella would be in her comfort zone, and she was in a good spot in fifth through an opening quarter of :22.26.
Paradise Woods, meanwhile, was in the thick of the scrum and headed early leader Princess Karen at the half in :44.43. By that point, Unique Bella was commencing her move. The big gray was taking the overland route compared to Paradise Woods, who’d slipped through on the rail, but she’d also had a less intense run in the initial stages.
Turning for home, the hotly anticipated duel of Unique Bella versus Paradise Woods was on. The favorite appeared to have the measure of Paradise Woods, but that rival dug in determinedly and tried her utmost. Paradise Woods still clung to a narrow lead at the six-furlong split in 1:08.81.
The seventh furlong, however, proved decisive. Unique Bella was too strong in the final yards, becoming irresistible the farther they went, and won going away by a comfortable three-quarters of a length. By clocking 1:21.49, she improved her record to 8-6-1-0, $592,400.
Paradise Woods was easily best of the rest, 1 3/4 lengths clear of late-running Mopotism. Marley’s Freedom, who had dueled early, retreated to fourth. Next came Just a Little Hope, Princess Karen, Faypien, and Miss Sunset.
Unique Bella was garnering an arguably overdue Grade 1 victory, having missed the heart of her three-year-old campaign due to a shin problem. At the time she was the raging antepost favorite for the Kentucky Oaks (G1), with a four-race winning spree including the Santa Ynez (G2), Las Virgenes (G2), and Santa Ysabel (G3). Her hot streak even sparked discussion about whether she should try the boys on the Triple Crown trail. In Unique Bella’s absence, Paradise Woods suddenly erupted onto the scene, only to disappoint in the Oaks before regrouping this fall.
Once Unique Bella was ready to return, Hollendorfer shortened her up to one turn to point for the Filly & Mare Sprint, viewing it as the more feasible Breeders’ Cup option in the circumstances. Unique Bella duly prevailed in her comeback in the L.A. Woman (G3), the swift pace of the 6 1/2-furlong dash helping the headstrong filly to settle more kindly than in a route. Yet in the Filly & Mare Sprint, rating tactics went out the window as she blasted to the front through a torrid pace and folded to seventh. The La Brea’s put her back on course.
Unique Bella is bred to excel around two turns, being a daughter of Tapit and 2010 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (G1) star Unrivaled Belle, by Unbridled’s Song. Fans can only hope that she stays healthy and continues her mental development next season, when she could try to emulate her dam in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup back at Churchill Downs.
Bred by Brushwood Stable in Pennsylvania, Unique Bella commanded $400,000 as a Keeneland September yearling.
Quotes from Santa Anita
Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer on Unique Bella: “We never lost confidence in her. We worked with her and got her to run a good race today – thank God. Mike (Smith) and I both thought she went too fast early last time (in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint) and she didn’t finish. Today, he let her lay a little off the pace and kept her wide and she finished well. I have confidence in Unique Bella. She gets into it and I thought she’d beat her (Paradise Woods), and down the lane, she did it.”
Winning rider Mike Smith: “She broke really well today and I got her going. I was concerned about going too fast early. That was the problem in the Breeders’ Cup. She has been training very aggressively in the mornings, so that was my concern. She relaxed and rated and was happy with the pace she had to run today. She gave it all she had to get the job done.”
Jockey Flavien Prat on runner-up Paradise Woods: “She broke well and had a good trip. She relaxed well, and turning for home she re-engaged and ran a good race.”