Don Alberto Stable's Unique Bella appeared to be on cruise control toward her second straight Grade 1 victory July 29 at Del Mar, but the last few strides got a little shaky for the 1-9 favorite.
After she coasted around most of the main track in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes Sunday, the big gray Tapit filly started to shorten her strides in the final sixteenth as a familiar foe came surprisingly close.
A four-length lead over La Force – who also finished a hard-closing second to Unique Bella last time out in the June 2 Beholder Mile – shrunk to a half-length at the wire. Unique Bella finished off the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.40 and jockey Mike Smith never used the whip, but the margin of victory was far from comfortable.
"She won, and we're happy with the way she did it," said winning trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. "Until they hit the wire, you're always concerned if they'll get there. She's been off a while and we wanted to get a win so we could plan her next race, which either will be back east or here. We're not sure yet."
With the win, Unique Bella earned an automatic berth in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs via the Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” program.
Unique Bella maintained a comfortable lead through the backstretch, with 7.10-1 second choice Yuvetsi in a stalking position in second, well ahead of the three trailing horses in the field of five. Yuvetsi tried to keep up in the final turn, but soon faded from contention as La Force – who was 10 lengths behind the leader after a half-mile – began to wind up for her rally.
La Force had Unique Bella in her sights in the stretch, but ran out of ground. Bernina Star closed from last to finish third, 9 ¼ lengths behind La Force, and was followed by Yuvetsi and Shenandoah Queen to complete the order of finish.
"My filly ran the race of her life," said Drayden Van Dyke, La Force's jockey. "She was really trying, but I saw Unique Bella jump forward when we got close to her. (Unique Bella) dug back in."
Smith said after the race Unique Bella lost a shoe leaving the gate and acknowledged the race Sunday was not her best effort.
"She ran okay," Smith said. "This wasn't her best race, but it was okay. She blew a shoe coming away from there and she was a little uncomfortable (because of it). When she heard that other mare coming, she surged again. This wasn't her best, but it was good enough."
Unique Bella now has three Grade 1 wins, following her victories in the Beholder Mile and the 2017 La Brea Stakes. Overall her record stands at 12-9-2-0 with $1,272,400 in earnings. She was a $400,000 purchase out of the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale.