Unique Bella looked like a 1-5 shot at nearly every point of the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) except the beginning and the end.
Last year’s champion female sprinter – making her first start outside California – missed the break of the 1 1/16-mile race on Friday at Oaklawn Park and pulled jockey Mike Smith to the front anyway, but she did not have enough to hold off Unbridled Mo late in suffering her first loss around two turns.
“If I could have stayed last with her I would have, but she wanted to go,” Smith said of Unique Bella’s last-to-second move inside the first quarter-mile of the race. “If I could slow her down I would, but I’ve never had to slow her down before and didn’t really want to try now. Was just a misfortune in the starting gate that she was squatting back as the gates open. I was trying to stand her up and next thing I knew they were off.”
Unique Bella chased Farrell through fractions of :23.41 and :46.94 before making the lead down the backside and hitting the far turn through six furlongs in 1:11.40. Eventual winner Unbridled Mo had some traffic early, but jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. liked his spot behind the pace knowing he had horse.
“At the three-eighths (far turn) I had a lot of horse but waited because I didn’t want to move too soon,” Santana said. “When I asked her turning for home she popped, and I knew we were going to get there.”
Unique Bella looked beat at the eighth-pole but did fight on to turn away Streamline, who finished a neck behind Fuhriously Kissed in fourth. Unbridled Mo won in 1:43.94 after receiving seven pounds from Unique Bella.
The Apple Blossom victory continued a big Racing Festival of the South for Santana, who on Thursday bagged four wins including the 1,000th of his career. The Apple Blossom marked his second career Grade 1 win – the other was the 2016 Arkansas Derby aboard Creator – and his mother was on hand for the victory.
Todd Pletcher trains Unbridled Mo for breeder Red Oak Stable. The five-year-old Uncle Mo mare lost her four-year-old debut when fourth in the Royal Delta Stakes (G3) in February at Gulfstream Park but flashed promise as a three- and four-year-old with wins in the Monmouth (G3) and Remington Park Oaks as well as the Houston Ladies Classic (G3) and Doubledogdare Stakes (G3).
Unique Bella will return to trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s California base.
APPLE BLOSSOM HANDICAP QUOTES
Todd Pletcher, trainer Unbridled Mo, winner
“We were kind of kicking around a couple of different options. Most importantly, the filly was training extremely well and seemed like she was sitting on a good race. We thought ultimately a Grade 1 was sort of the only thing missing on her resume. She’s a very consistent mare. We knew that there’s a very short-priced favorite we had to beat. We felt like if she’d won, even if she was second or third, if would be a positive result. Decided to go ahead and take a shot and very happy that we did.”
Stephen Brunetti, owner Unbridled Mo, winner
“This is our first time we’ve ever been to Hot Springs, and I’m sure we’ll be back again. We were going back and forth between a couple of different races and Todd told us how well she was training and he said, ‘Let’s take a shot in the Apple Blossom.’ You never knew what would have happen with Unique Bella. She was shipping and it was a sloppy track. Just all worked out for the best.”
Ricardo Santana Jr., jockey Unbridled Mo, winner
“We got a good break. I was scared during the first turn when I had to stop her a little bit, but I knew she was coming back. I was sitting fourth and at the five-eighths I took her out a little bit and then she came on pretty good. At the three-eighths, I was just waiting for the turn for home because I didn’t want to move too soon. When I turned for home, I asked her and her class won out.”
Mike Smith, jockey Unique Bella, second
“She’s squatted in the gate. I was trying to stand her up. The next thing I knew they opened the gates and she squatted back. She totally missed the break. I wish I could have stayed last. If I could have, I would have. She was very strong and very fresh. After she got left, she just wanted to catch up. I could have thrown her down, but I never had to do that and I wasn’t about to start. It was just unfortunate.”
Anthony Quartarolo, trainer Fuhriously Kissed, third
“I give the credit to the owner (Ronald Paolucci of Loooch Racing Stable). He picked her out. She ran great. We were hoping for moisture in the track and we got a little, so it worked out. (Jockey) C.J. (McMahon) rode her great.”
C.J. McMahon, jockey Fuhriously Kissed, third
“It set up perfect just like I mapped it out. I saved ground when I was able to break. She broke good with her feet underneath her. I dropped down to the fence as soon as I could, being in the three hole. With speed in the race it worked out perfect. Coming down the lane she hesitated just a tad passing on the fence but when she got through she galloped out great. (Trainer) Anthony (Quartarolo) did a fantastic job and I appreciate the opportunity.”