The Twin Spires on Kentucky Oaks Day – Coady Photography
Once in a while, a young horse comes along and wins a race in such breathtaking fashion that you simply sit back in awe and ask yourself “What kind of a horse is this?” Sometimes, these budding stars turn out to be one-hit wonders; “shooting stars” that burn brightly for a race or two before falling back to earth. Much more rarely, these stars stay aloft for years at a time, and their early brilliance is simply a precursor of what is to come; the tip of the iceberg in regard to what they will achieve.
Only time will tell, but a three-year-old filly named Unique Bella might turn out to be one of those rarer stars.
In terms of pedigree, Unique Bella has had the potential to be something special since the day she was born. Her sire is Tapit, the acclaimed stallion that has been breaking records as the leading sire in the United States. Her dam is Unrivaled Belle, who achieved lasting fame as the winner of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (gr. I).
With such an impressive pedigree, Unique Bella sold for $400,000 at the Keeneland September 2015 Yearling Sale, winding up in the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. She made her debut on June 23rd at Santa Anita and showed promise, overcoming a slow start to finish second in a five-furlong maiden race while running the final furlong in an impressive :11 3/5 seconds.
Thereafter, Unique Bella went to the sidelines, but when she returned to serious training, she caught eyes with an impressive series of fast workouts at Santa Anita. It seemed evident that Unique Bella was ready to run; surely she would win her next race.
On a rainy afternoon at Del Mar on November 26th, Unique Bella made her comeback in a 6 ½-furlong maiden special weight. Just over a minute and sixteen seconds later, racing fans everywhere were asking themselves “What kind of a horse is this?”
With Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith in the saddle, Unique Bella cruised away from her seven rivals, opening up a two-length lead through a quarter-mile in :22.49 seconds. Her advantage only grew from there; slowly at first, then faster and faster. She was six lengths in front through a half-mile in :45.40 and Mike Smith hadn’t yet asked her to run. In the end, he never did; Smith merely hand-urged her early in the homestretch as Unique Bella pulled clear by seven, eight, nine, and finally 10 ¼ lengths as she crossed the wire 1:16.08 seconds.
In the weeks since her maiden win, Unique Bella has posted four more brilliant workouts at Santa Anita: four furlongs in :46.60 on December 4th, five furlongs in :58.60 on December 11th, six furlongs in 1:11.80 on December 18th, and six furlongs in 1:12.60 on December 26th. The first three were “bullet” workouts (the fastest of the morning at their respective distances) and the first two received the description “breezing” from Santa Anita clockers, meaning that Unique Bella was running easily without encouragement from her rider. A video of her December 11th workout shows Unique Bella finishing powerfully with her jockey virtually motionless; anyone unfamiliar with her official time might have guessed that she’d gone in 1:00 flat.
In a year where the most accomplished two-year-old fillies have taken turns beating each other while earning slower-than-usual speed figures, Unique Bella could be poised to seize command of the division in 2017. Perhaps on paper Unique Bella hasn’t yet achieved anything to warrant such lofty hopes, but visually, she has the look of a filly that might be something special. The look of a future champion in the making. The look of a possible superstar.
Unique Bella’s next scheduled race is the January 8th Santa Ynez Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita, a seven-furlong sprint that will serve as an ideal stepping stone toward more prestigious races at longer distances. A win in the Santa Ynez will undoubtedly launch Unique Bella on the road to the May 5th Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, a road that Hollendorfer has navigated more than a few times in the past. He’s won the race on three occasions, most recently with Blind Luck in 2010, and he might have won a fourth had his champion filly Songbird not been sidelined by illness before the 2016 Kentucky Oaks.
Can Unique Bella rise to those same illustrious heights?
Only time will tell, but I have the feeling this star will shine for longer than most.