For the first handful of strides in the $200,000, Grade 2 Santa Maria Stakes, it appeared as if Don Alberto Stable’s Unique Bella would get a challenge, but the big gray machine did away with that quickly.
Early in the 1 1/16-mile race, Grade 2 winner Majestic Heat was at Unique Bella’s neck, but by the time they went into the first turn at Santa Anita Park, the 1-10 favorite put a distance between herself and the overmatched challengers and never looked back.
“We thought we would be on the lead, but [jockey] Mike [Smith] was talking with me this morning, and we thought that if somebody went real hard or something like that, we’d just try to lay off the pace and see if she would relax,” said winning trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. “But she got out to a lead and was handling the track really well.”
The first quarter-mile went in :23.54, the half-mile went in :46.80, and on the backstretch the 4-year-old Tapit filly was in cruise control.
“She wasn’t even trying,” Smith said. “I was just talking to her — ‘whoa, whoa, whoa’ — and she was just having fun.”
Six furlongs went in 1:10.95 and it became clear in the final turn that any fight in the Santa Maria would be for the minors. A three-length lead became eight in the stretch and, even geared down to a gallop in the final sixteenth of a mile, Unique Bella extended her lead to nine at the finish line with a final time of 1:43.45.
Last-out Grade 2 La Canada Stakes winner Mopotism passed Majestic Heat late in the stretch to pick up second.
“I really don’t think we’ve seen how good she can be,” Smith said. “The easy way she’s doing things so easily right now is extremely impressive and I truly believe we haven’t gotten to the bottom of her. There could be more, so I’m excited to see what the future holds for her.”
Hollendorfer said after the race that a likely target next for Unique Bella would be the March 17 Santa Margarita Stakes at Santa Anita, but also mentioned the April 13 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park.
“We’ll look at the next race here and try to point for that, then who knows what will happen after that,” the Hall of Fame trainer said.
What may happen after that, if Smith has his way, could be a shot against males. While Hollendorfer never put his last super filly, Songbird, in against males, Smith said Unique Bella could be a unique case because of her size and power.
“There’s some different things we can do with her because of her size,” the jockey said. “She might step up with the boys at some point. She’s not just a little one-gutted kind of filly. She’s got a lot to her. She’s built more like a colt. She’s strong and she’s so athletic for as big as she is. When you can get a body like that going in that direction, that quick — and then she uses that stride and it’s a deadly weapon.”
Named the champion sprinter of 2017 after wins going short in the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes, Grade 3 L.A. Woman Stakes, and Grade 2 Santa Ynez Stakes, Unique Bella’s connections feel that she isn’t a specialist going short or long.
“Most good horses can run both ways,” Hollendorfer said. “Most of the good ones I’ve ever had — colts or fillies — can run short or long. I believe in that.”
Bred in Pennsylvania by Brushwood Stable, out of the Grade 1-winning Unbridled’s Song mare Unrivaled Belle, Unique Bella now has seven wins from nine starts and $712,400 in earnings. She was a $400,000 purchase by Don Alberto out of the Keeneland September yearling sale in 2015.
“Jerry said she was going to run a big race, but not this big,” said Don Alberto Executive Director Febrizio Buffolo.