02/06/2017 11:56AM

Unique Bella gaining that Songbird aura

Emily Shields
Unique Bella, like Songbird trained by Jerry Hollendorfer and ridden by Mike Smith, wins the Las Virgenes by 8 3/4 lengths on Sunday.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The rapid success of Unique Bella this winter has triggered familiar memories for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and jockey Mike Smith.

Since Thanksgiving weekend, the 3-year-old Unique Bella has won three consecutive races, including two stakes, by a combined 26 1/2 lengths. The latest was a cozy win by 8 3/4 lengths in Sunday’s $200,000 Las Virgenes Stakes at a mile at Santa Anita.

A year ago, Songbird won the Grade 2 Las Virgenes Stakes in her 3-year-old debut by 6 1/2 lengths for Hollendorfer and Smith. The 2015 juvenile filly champion, Songbird went on to win the 3-year-old filly title last year.

Like Songbird before her, there can be no doubt that Unique Bella is the top 3-year-old filly in the nation.

“They’re very similar as far as their talent,” Smith said on Sunday.

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Hollendorfer has a blueprint for Unique Bella’s late-winter and early-spring campaign that is similar to Songbird’s 2016 schedule. Hollendorfer said Unique Bella will be pointed for the $100,000 Santa Ysabel Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on March 4 and the $400,000 Santa Anita Oaks at 1 1/16 miles on April 8, races Songbird won.

The $1 million Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on May 5 is a goal for Unique Bella, and not the Kentucky Derby the following day. Hollendorfer never seriously considered running Songbird in the Kentucky Derby last year and feels the same about Unique Bella.

“I’d like to try to keep her against fillies if I can,” Hollendorfer said in the winner’s circle Sunday.

Songbird, who races for Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farms, missed the Kentucky Oaks because of illness. She won her first seven starts of 2016, including Grade 1 wins at Santa Anita, Saratoga, and Parx Racing, before a second by a nose in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Nov. 4, her most recent start.

The 2016 Las Virgenes was Songbird’s fifth start and fourth stakes win. Unique Bella, who races for Don Alberto Stable, has won three of four starts. She was second in a maiden race last June and did not start again for five months because of tender shins.

Unique Bella won a maiden race at 6 1/2 furlongs by 10 1/4 lengths at Del Mar on Nov. 26 and won the Grade 2 Santa Ynez Stakes at seven furlongs by 7 1/2 lengths here Jan. 8. The Las Virgenes was her first start around two turns, an assignment she handled with ease.

Unique Bella stalked pacesetter Mopotism before taking the lead with more than a half-mile to go. She led by 2 1/2 lengths on the turn and by five lengths with a furlong remaining. She earned a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 98.

“It’s unbelievable,” Hollendorfer said. “Mike said he has to pinch himself. I’m the most grateful person to have a horse like this.”

The two fillies have other similarities, notably running style. Songbird often races within a length of the front, sometimes taking the lead. Unique Bella beat maidens on the front and has won her two stakes by racing close to the early lead.

Unique Bella impressed Smith with the way she handled a mile in the Las Virgenes.

“I was very happy with the way she settled,” Smith said. “I could have taken her farther back. I didn’t want to do anything too drastic. She was very happy and having a good time out there.

“She doesn’t have to be on the lead, and that’s a good thing.”

Stakes wins in January and February do not earn fillies championship, Smith is quick to note.

“She’s got a long way to go to do what Songbird did,” Smith said. “The talent is there.”

Songbird was given a rest in Kentucky after the BC Distaff, her first loss. She rejoined Hollendorfer’s stable in late January and has been in steady training. She might return this spring, perhaps in the $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at 1 1/16 miles at Oaklawn Park on April 14, Hollendorfer said. He stressed that such plans are tentative.

“She’s full of herself,” he said, grinning. “We’ll take it slow. She could be ready for a race in March. The race in April is at Oaklawn Park. I’d like to run her in California, but we might have some road races.”