Don Alberto Stable's Unique Bella finally got a challenge March 4 in the $100,000 Santa Ysabel Stakes (G3), but shrugged it off in the final furlong to reestablish her standing as the current favorite for the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1).
Grade 1 winner Abel Tasman, far back in fifth in the early stages, made a huge move in the final turn of the 1 1/16-mile dirt test and pulled within a length of the Tapit filly, but Unique Bella rebroke under jockey Mike Smith and pulled away in the final stages to win by 2 1/2 lengths at Santa Anita Park.
It was the fourth consecutive open-lengths victory for the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained gray, following a 10 1/4-length maiden score, a 7 1/2-length win in the Santa Ynez (G2), and a 8 3/4-length romp in the Las Virgenes (G2).
"We have a very talented filly and we'd like to look at the Kentucky Oaks," Hollendorfer said. "We like to take one step at a time. We'd like to go for the Santa Anita Oaks (G1), and if we win or do well, then we'll try to go to Kentucky."
The trip for the 1-9 favorite was far from uneventful. After breaking slowly from the inside post in the field of six, Unique Bella bowled between early frontrunners Tap It All and Spooky Woods to take command in the first turn, hitting the first half-mile in :46.23 after a first quarter in :23.35. She held a three-length advantage after the half and extended her lead to five lengths through six furlongs in 1:10.70 as Abel Tasman began to rev up from the back.
"It was pretty eventful," Smith said. "Sometimes you just stay out of the way of the good ones and they'll run for you. That's pretty much what I did today."
Abel Tasman, the 2016 Starlet (G1) winner trained by Simon Callaghan, was 9 1/2 lengths back under jockey Joe Talamo after the first half-mile before unleashing her rally, but Unique Bella was too tough. The winner ran a mile in 1:36.73 and hit the wire in 1:43.11.
"Turning for home I had a lot of horse under me," Talamo said. "Hat's off to the winner. What a special filly she is, because ... I really had a lot of horse and we had a beautiful trip. ... I was so proud of my filly. I think she's definitely going to move forward from here."
Bred in Pennsylvania by Brushwood Stable out of the Unbridled's Song mare Unrivaled Belle, Unique Bella now has earnings of $342,400 from four wins in five starts. She was a $400,000 purchase from the Eaton Sales consignment to the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale.
"When we got to the stretch, Mike told me he was looking around, but when he asked her she immediately responded," said Don Alberto racing manager Fernando Diaz-Valdes. "It was a little slow. I would think the pace would have been a little bit faster. I was expecting more speed. Finally it's one step closer with what we want to do with her. I think the Santa Anita Oaks for sure."
Unique Bella returned $2.20, $2.10, and $2.10 while Abel Tasman paid $2.40 and $2.10. Eight lengths back in third came Hollendorfer-trained Spooky Woods ($2.80), followed by Mistressofthenight, What What What, and Tap It All to complete the order of finish.