Champion Unique Bella a Standout in Santa Maria

The Santa Maria Handicap will be run for the 78th time since 1934 on Saturday at Santa Anita Park. Though only a Grade 2 event, the Santa Maria boasts eight winners that are now members of the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, including Gamely, Dark Mirage and Serena’s Song.

Unique Bella is hoping to become the ninth.

Four will join Unique Bella in search of the win, but they will all have their hands full with the gray daughter of Tapit, widely considered by many to be the best sprinting filly in the world.

Saturday’s Southern California weather forecast is beautiful with sunny skies and highs in the upper 60s. No rain has fallen in the area for weeks, so expect fast and firm all day at The Great Race Place.

I think what needs to be said about Unique Bella has been said. Well-bred, expensive, top connections, champion, Grade 1 winner, Hall of Fame trainer, Hall of Fame jockey, big speed, pace and class numbers, front-runner, stalker, mid-pack runner and then, this year, she became somewhat of a closer. She’s been working holes in the wind since winning the La Brea Stakes (GI) on opening day and, yes, while races need to be run before crowning a winner, it’d be hard to imagine anyone beating her.

Mopotism (photo by Jim Safford).

Mopotism (photo by Jim Safford).

The Doug O’Neill-trained Mopotism had spent the majority of her career chasing the elite in her division — Unique Bella, Faypien, Abel Tasman, Paradise Woods, Forever Unbridled, It Tiz Well — until her last, where she finally caught a field she could handle and took the one-mile La Canada Stakes (GII) by a head a month ago. At her best, her figures are strong and right with the rivals who will also attempt to dethrone Unique Bella. Her best trip seems to be sitting right behind the speed, so it’s a good bet jockey Mario Gutierrez will be sending from the break to get good position early. She’s a solid choice to complete the exacta.

Auerbach Racing’s Majestic Heat won the Bayakoa Stakes (GII) at Los Alamitos back in December after taking the Betty Grable Stakes at Del Mar, but faltered in the La Canada last out after a wide trip and Mike Smith dropping the whip in the lane. We know she’s better than the fifth she turned in and we also know that, as a closer, the Richard Mandella trainee will love the predicted speedy pace in front of her. As a daughter of Unusual Heat she might be better suited to two turns, but she has won at this distance and is always competitive. Flavien Prat picks up the mount as Smith sticks with the favorite, which is a bonus as Prat and Mandella have a solid history and win percentage together.

Kathy’s Song is on the dirt for the second time in her career. She’s a super-talented filly, but this seems a tough spot for her, especially against the champion.

Stakes winner Shenandoah Queen drew the rail and hasn’t really run any race that suggests she can keep up with the top choice. Her connections are hoping she can put it all together to get a graded stakes placing.

The Santa Maria has been carded as the day’s fourth race with a post time of 1:34 p.m. PT. First race post time will be noon to accommodate the day’s 10-race card.

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