Every indication was there—Don Alberto Stable's Unique Bella could be a freak.
She broke her maiden in November by 10 1/4 lengths with ease, with the similar connections to another superstar filly—trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and jockey Mike Smith—but the step up to stakes company is sometimes steep, so she would have to prove it on the racetrack.
Jan. 8 was the day where she did just that. Although the Tapit filly opened up as the 1-5 favorite in the $200,000 Santa Ynez Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita Park, when the gates opened she was not the favorite, but she performed like she was odds-on.
Unique Bella raced off the pace early as Resilient Humor, Princess Karen, and Shane's Girlfriend engaged in a three-way contest for the lead, moved four wide in the turn to breeze past the top three, and cruised home to win the seven-furlong test by 7 1/2 lengths without any asking from Smith.
"When I saw everyone else send, I thought it was a good time to take a hold of her and see what happens," Smith said of Unique Bella, who set the pace in her maiden-breaking win and pulled away from an overmatched field Nov. 26 at Del Mar. "It didn't seem to bother her. When we hit the far turn, it was like she was breathing different air."
Both Smith and Hollendorfer said after the race that they imagined Unique Bella would be closer to the pace with a better break from the gate, but they certainly were not displeased with the result.
"Well, I've always liked her. Today, she showed that she's brilliant," Hollendorfer said. "We thought she'd jump out of there a little better. I thought she would be close to the lead. Mike used his judgment got behind, and then got to the outside, so it worked out well."
The three frontrunners ran the first quarter in :22.33 with 30-1 longshot Resilient Humor a head in front on the rail, 4-5 favorite and Delta Downs Princess (G3) winner Shane's Girlfriend between horses, and Princess Karen three-wide. But after a half in :44.58, Unique Bella was already on the attack, only a head behind Resilient Humor.
Soon after the race was all but over. Fellow Hollendorfer trainee It Tiz Well closed from last in the five-filly field to pick up second place, 2 1/2 lengths clear of a tiring Shane's Girlfriend.
"She broke well, we broke on top, but we got pressure right away from the inside and outside," said Flavien Prat, who rode Shane's Girlfriend. "I thought we could be second, but we weren't going to beat the winner today."
Unique Bella cruised to six furlongs in 1:09.28 and hit the wire in 1:22.21. The performance even inspired Hollendorfer, not one to get too far ahead of himself, to think about what she could be capable of.
"I don't know if we've seen all there is to Unique Bella," the Hall of Fame conditioner said.
Smith went a step further.
"It's (reasonable) to compare her to (Songbird)," Smith said. "Again, she's very talented, but with room to grow. Hopefully, with each step, she'll get smarter about certain things. I'm just blessed. That's all I can say."
Unique Bella is the first foal to race out of Unrivaled Belle, who topped the 2016 Keeneland November sale as a $3.8 milion purchase by Whisper Hill Farm from the Eaton Sales consignment.