Don Alberto Stable’s Unique Bella returned to her familiar spot in the winner’s circle on Saturday following an impressive 2 ¼-length victory in the $100,000 Santa Ysabel Stakes (GIII) at Santa Anita. Despite the win, however, the big gray daughter of Tapit actually had to work for it for the first time under Mike Smith after breaking poorly, being shuffled back the first time past the wire and then powering through rivals to gain her familiar spot on the lead before she even straightened out for the run up the backstretch.
All in a day’s work for the best 3-year-old currently in training.
After the break, which saw Unique Bella hesitate a tad when the gates opened, Tap It All took the easy lead and had earned a narrow advantage as a quarter-mile went in :23.35. By the time the half went in :46.23, however, Unique Bella had muscled her way through rivals to gain command, and soon after zipped past three-quarters in 1:10.70. After galloping around the far bend and into the stretch with an easy lead, she was briefly challenged by the closing Abel Tasman just more than a furlong out and, for the first time, Smith had to do more than ride along, rousing Unique Bella with a couple of taps from a left-handed whip when briefly threatened. The race was over from there as Unique Bella continued confidently to the wire, stopping the clock in 1:43.11 for the 1 1/16 miles.
“It was pretty eventful,” Smith said of Unique Bella’s trip. “Sometimes you just stay out of the way of the good ones and they’ll run for you. That’s pretty much what I did today. I was blessed enough to be able to lead my way out.”
At odds of 1-9, Unique Bella was worth $2.20, $2.10 and $2.10. Abel Tasman, as the 5-1 second choice, paid $2.40 and $2.10. Spooky Woods, at 26-1, returned $2.80. The $1 exact was worth $1.70 and the $1 trifecta $4.70.
Mistressofthenight, What What What and Tap It All completed the order of finish after Noted and Quoted was withdrawn.
Despite her impressive record of four straight victories, Unique Bella, who is Triple Crown nominated, will stay against the girls at least through her next race and first stab in Grade I company, which trainer Jerry Holledorfer indicated will be in the April 8 Santa Anita Oaks (GI).
“The Santa Anita Oaks is our next point race,” the Hall of Fame conditioner said. “It’s a perfect progression. We have a very talented filly and we’d like to look at the Kentucky Oaks (GI). We like to take one step at a time. We’d like to go for the Santa Anita Oaks and if we win or do well, then we’ll try to go to Kentucky.
“It’s a great honor to be considered the frontrunner for the Kentucky Oaks. We’re blessed to have good horses so I feel really grateful to have a horse like Unique Bella and equally as grateful for Songbird last year. I hope they don’t match up this year. I had enough … with Beholder. That was a pretty good matchup.”
“We’re trying to do our best and she’s rewarding us. I don’t have any thoughts about running her against the boys, but some other folks do, I guess.”
Unique Bella was bred in Pennsylvania by Betty Moran’s Brushwood Stables and was purchased for $400,000 as a Keeneland September yearling in 2015. She is a daughter of the Unbridled’s Song mare Unrivaled Belle, who won the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (GI). She earned $60,000 for her latest triumph to bring her earnings to $362,400 and her career line stands at 5-4-0-1. She also won the Santa Ynez Stakes (GIII) and Las Virgenes Stakes (GII).
“When we got to the stretch, Mike told me she was looking around, but when he asked her she immediately answered,” Fernando Diaz-Valdez, Don Alberto’s racing manager, said. “It was a little slow; I would think the pace would have been a little bit faster. I was expecting more speed. Finally, it’s one step closer with what we want to do with her. I think the Santa Anita Oaks for sure.”