01/05/2018 12:20PM

2017 Eclipse Awards: Unique Bella

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Benoit & Associates
Unique Bella

An off-the-pace victory by Unique Bella on Dec. 26 in the Grade 1 La Brea at Santa Anita not only erased some of the disappointment of her loss as a heavy favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint but also validated the promises she had made earlier in the year as a blossoming superstar.

Very few Thoroughbreds were held in higher esteem in 2017 than Unique Bella, whose campaign was limited to six starts because of an interruption in late March by a sore shin. As a 2-year-old of 2016, Unique Bella had won a November maiden race at Del Mar by 10 1/4 lengths, and she got away to a fast start as a 3-year-old for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.

Owned by the Don Alberto Stable, Unique Bella was so impressive in capturing three straight early-season stakes at Santa Anita – the Grade 3 Santa Ynez, the Grade 2 Las Virgenes, and the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel – that she was the 11-10 favorite in the Kentucky Oaks Future Wager pool held in March.

“It’s not just the way she does it,” Mike Smith, the Hall of Fame jockey who has ridden Unique Bella in all eight career starts, told Daily Racing Form before the Santa Ysabel. “It’s her size, too. I would say she’s as big, if not bigger than, most of the colts her age right now.”

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Alas, the filly was forced to the sidelines with the nagging shin injury and did not return until winning the Grade 3 L.A. Woman on Oct. 8 at Santa Anita. Even with just that one prep under her belt, she was bet down to 11-10 favoritism in a full field of 14 in the seven-furlong Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Del Mar, setting sharp fractions of 21.84 seconds and 44.35 before fading to finish seventh.

Unfazed by the loss, Hollendorfer sought to come in the back door of the Eclipse discussion by running Unique Bella in the seven-furlong La Brea. Settling just behind a tight group of front-runners, Unique Bella was kept clear on the far outside before engaging Paradise Woods leaving the quarter pole and going on to prevail by three-quarters of a length.

“I was pretty confident because Mike was willing to take her wide, and he didn’t have to be wide,” Hollendorfer said afterward.

A $400,000 purchase from the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale by Don Alberto, a Chilean enterprise with vast international holdings, Unique Bella was bred in Pennsylvania by the Brushwood Stable of Betty Moran. A gray daughter of Tapit, she was produced by Unrivaled Belle, winner of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic and an earner of $1.8 million.

Unique Bella won five of her six starts in 2017 for earnings of $550,000. She will be campaigned this year as a 4-year-old, with Hollendorfer stretching her out to longer distances, starting most likely with the Feb. 10 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita.