03/02/2017 3:06PM

Hovdey: Unique Bella joins Smith's gray gallery


It’s a good thing Mike Smith does not look at the world in terms of black and white. Look at what he would have missed.

A Breeders’ Cup Classic with Skip Away. A Breeders’ Cup Turf with Tikkanen. A Kentucky Derby with Giacomo. A Pegasus World Cup with Arrogate. A championship campaign with Stardom Bound. A Horse of the Year season with Holy Bull.

And whatever comes next with Unique Bella.

Smith’s personal cavalcade of gray-coated all-stars flies into the face of actuarial stats that find the color in only about 3 percent of all Thoroughbreds. The great grays attract attention not only because there are so few – Native Dancer, Spectacular Bid, Desert Orchid, Lady’s Secret, and Silver Charm come immediately to mind – but also because they tend to stand out in a crowd, and as they age, they decorate the landscape with puffs of cottony white.

Unique Bella comes by her gray hue honestly. The mating of her parents, Tapit and Unrivaled Belle, must have looked like a roiling of cumulus clouds. Or a pillow fight. Unrivaled Belle was by the gray-gone-white Unbridled’s Song, who was a racehorse of considerable ability even while compromised by chronic foot problems.

“I rode him in every one of his races,” Smith said this week as he prepared for Unique Bella’s appearance on Saturday in the Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita. “He was tough. He was aggressive. And for a big horse, he was very quick. If he wasn’t on the lead, he was never far off of it. “But I don’t think we ever got to see how good Unbridled’s Song was because of his feet,” Smith added. “He always had a quarter crack here or there. He probably should have been a Derby winner, and still for him to run as good as he did in the Kentucky Derby wearing those two big bar shoes was pretty remarkable.”

After taking the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park, Unbridled’s Song won the 1996 Florida Derby and Wood Memorial to establish himself as the Kentucky Derby favorite, despite his well-publicized feet. He took a clear lead with a quarter-mile to run that day and was still in the thick of the race midway through the stretch before he was overtaken by Cavonnier and then the victorious Grindstone. Unbridled’s Song missed finishing third by a neck and a nose, beaten just under four lengths.

“When he was right, you couldn’t beat him, he was that good,” Smith said. “Every time he got beat, we already knew we were going in with an excuse, just some little thing that kept him from running his ‘A’ race.”

Smith sees a lot of her maternal grandsire in Unique Bella. Jerry Hollendorfer and his crew knew they had a handful of filly from the start.

“Unbridled’s Song was tough to saddle – it usually took two or three guys to hold onto him – but once he got out on the racetrack, he was fine,” Smith said. “She’s got some of his fire, his attitude. But Jerry and his crew have worked hard with her, taking her to the paddock, to the gate, letting her know that everything’s going to be okay. And it’s paid off. She’s starting to figure things out and behave with a lot of confidence.”

Unbridled’s Song, who died in 2013, is also the sire of Arrogate, currently considered the top horse on the planet.

“That’s a whole different interview,” Smith said. “He’s just a laid-back dude who lets nothing bother him. Must be from his mother’s side.”

More to the point, Smith has been bombarded with demands to compare Unique Bella to Songbird, the two-time champion who lives in the same barn and has yet to make her 4-year-old debut.

“In terms of ability, you could say they are a lot alike because they have a lot of it,” Smith said, being mischievous.

“But they are totally different horses,” he added. “Different attitude, different breeding, different color. I mean, when it comes to mechanics, you could say all great horses are similar. Their balance is really good. They don’t waste a lot of action. Everything is forward. Because of that, they can do things easily that tire out other horses. It’s kind of like the difference between driving an old clunker and a new sports car.

“I’ve been blessed to have ridden a lot of great fillies – Songbird, Sky Beauty, Inside Information, Azeri, Zenyatta. Line them all up together, and who knows? I just know that in their time, they were above all the rest.”

So far, Smith is getting the same kind of vibes with Unique Bella, especially when she’s winning her races in hand by seven or eight lengths.

“It’s not just the way she does it,” Smith said. “It’s her size, too. I would say she’s as big if not bigger than most of the colts her age right now.”

And don’t forget, she is gray, with a white splash on her forehead that passes for a camouflaged blaze. Smith was asked, given his history with the color, if he had a gray or white pony while growing up in New Mexico.

“No, I’m kind of surprised I didn’t,” he said. “But I never missed an episode of ‘The Lone Ranger’ on TV.”

Hi-yo, Bella.