Unique Bella romping to victory in the Santa Ynez Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita – © Benoit Photo
It’s not every day that a reigning Eclipse Award champion is overshadowed in their first start after winning a Breeders’ Cup race, but such will be the case in the $200,000 Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. II) on February 5th at Santa Anita, a race that has drawn a small but deep field of five three-year-old fillies.
The champion in question is Champagne Room, a two-time graded stakes winner that posted a 33-1 upset in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) last November. On the basis of that successful campaign, Champagne Room was voted champion two-year-old filly at the Eclipse Awards, and following an impressive series of workouts at Santa Anita (including three bullets), she looks poised for a big effort in her comeback race.
Yet Champagne Room is a 5-2 shot on the morning line and isn’t even the favorite. That honor has gone to the unbeaten Unique Bella (3-5 on the morning line), who has stamped herself as a potential superstar after winning her last two starts in effortless fashion.
As I detailed back in January, Unique Bella has the pedigree to be something special. After all, her sire is the record-breaking Tapit and her dam is Unrivaled Belle, winner of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (gr. I). But it was the way that she broke her maiden at Del Mar–winning by a ridiculously easy 10 1/4 lengths–that indicated she might be a star in the making.
A little more than a month later, Unique Bella returned to action in the Santa Ynez Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita. Showing a new dimension racing just off the lead, Unique Bella effortlessly swept past the field on the turn and won with ease by 7 1/2 lengths. Better still, runner-up It Tiz Well came right back to win an allowance optional claiming race over the same track and distance by 3 3/4 lengths.
The Las Virgenes will offer a new test for Unique Bella, as it will mark her first start around two turns. It’s a significant step on the road to the Kentucky Oaks, but given her pedigree, Unique Bella should have no trouble with the added distance. Equally impressive are her speed figures–her maiden win yielded a 99 BRIS speed figure and her Santa Ynez triumphed garnered a 93. For comparison, Champagne Room’s best BRIS figure is a 94 from her Breeders’ Cup win.
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has won the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) three times and has trained such standout champion fillies as Songbird and Blind Luck. Jockey Mike Smith has ridden some of the greatest fillies and mares in history, including Zenyatta and Songbird. With Unique Bella, it appears they’ve teamed up with a filly that could truly be “any kind,” hence the fact that she is overshadowing a champion in pre-race discussions about the Las Virgenes Stakes.
Given the small field and the likelihood that Unique Bella and Champagne Room will dominate the race, the Las Virgenes doesn’t offer much potential for a big wagering score. But what it does offer is the potential for an exciting showdown between two talented fillies, and if Unique Bella wins in the manner that many expect her to, we might just be looking at a superstar.
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