Each time the connections of Forever Unbridled came to a crossroads the last couple months, the verdict was always to maintain faith the big bay mare would ultimately prove their instincts correct.
After she bested champion Songbird in the Aug. 26 Personal Ensign Stakes (G1)—just her second start of the year—trainer Dallas Stewart and owner Charles Fipke gambled that fresh legs would serve the daughter of Unbridled's Song better than another race heading into the Nov. 3 Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) at Del Mar. And when Fipke made the much-talked-about call to replace the mare's regular pilot, Joel Rosario, with Hall of Famer John Velazquez for Friday's 1 1/8-mile run, the fact their charge was healthy and peaking for her second attempt at Breeders' Cup glory was the narrative her team most wanted to focus on.
Coming into the stretch of the 2017 Distaff, Forever Unbridled shifted the conversation in the best way possible. At the wire of the $2 million race, it was all about the 5-year-old mare's sustained excellence and the remarkable family history she continues to carry forward.
One year after she finished third behind brilliant champions Beholder and Songbird in the Distaff, Fipke's homebred darling snatched the hardware for herself when she shook clear entering the lane, then held off multiple grade 1 winner Abel Tasman by a half-length. It was her fourth top-level win, and cemented her as the leading older female in training.
The satisfaction that ran through Stewart and Fipke when their girl hit the wire penetrated on a deeply emotional level for each. Having conditioned both her grade 1-winning dam, Lemons Forever, and her full sister, Unbridled Forever, Stewart has spent more than a decade getting the best out of her bloodlines.
When Fipke laid out $2.5 million to purchase Lemons Forever at the 2007 Keeneland November breeding stock sale, even the noted geologist could not have fathomed what a treasure of a female family he had unearthered.
"It's just remarkable. I don't think there is a family like this in the world that I can think of that's been so solid," beamed Stewart, whose only other Breeders' Cup win came in the 2001 Distaff, when he saddled another daughter of Unbridled's Song, Unbridled Elaine, to victory. "You have to give Chuck Fipke credit. He bred (Lemons Forever) to Unbridled's Song. He had the nerve to step up and give $2.5 million for the mom.
"It's been a great story. I'm just blessed. She's such a great filly."
Already a multiple grade 1 winner at the end of her 4-year-old season, Forever Unbridled's story is one that could have ended last year were she in different hands.
Following her third-place run in last year's Distaff, she underwent surgery to remove a bone chip in her left front ankle. Her value would have allowed her to go to any stallion of Fipke's choosing but instead, he decided to let Stewart see how much better his stable star could be with a little added time.
Her seasonal debut in the June 17 Fleur de Lis Handicap (G2) at Churchill Downs saw her notch a 1 3/4-length victory, even with the bit of rust on her frame. It also got her form on point for a showdown with Songbird in the Personal Ensign, where she rolled up with big strides on the outside to hand the dual Eclipse Award heroine just her second career defeat.
"Chuck could have retired her. She was already a grade 1 winner but he was like, 'I want to keep going with her,' " Stewart said. "Nine out of 10 guys would have retired her. But Chuck, being the sportsman he is (who) loves racing wanted to see this happen for her. And he did."
With champion Stellar Wind also back for another Breeders' Cup run and the likes of upstart sophomores Elate and Abel Tasman waiting to show the older girls what they could do, Forever Unbridled needed all of her class to pull off her defining victory.
After breaking from post 6 under Velazquez—who had piloted the mare twice previously, including her victory in the 2016 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1)—Forever Unbridled bided her time in seventh in the eight-horse field, saving a bit of ground coming into the backstretch as champion Champagne Room cut an opening quarter-mile in :23.79 up front with grade 1 winner Paradise Woods sitting just off that one's hip.
By the time Champagne Room hit the half-mile mark in :48.08, Velazquez had moved Forever Unbridled up a notch to sixth where she tracked Elate who was racing in the three-path. Coming into the final turn, Forever Unbridled made her move a bit earlier than normal, sweeping past Elate and then wearing down Paradise Woods before turning back Abel Tasman's late kick.
"I wanted to make sure I did save some ground going into the first turn," Velazquez said. "It started slowing down a bit going to the backstretch and ... by the half-mile pole I could see that Jose Oritz (on Elate) was in trouble. So I had to make a decision to go around him and try to close the hole a bit.
"I ended up in the lead a little too soon but she waited a bit ... and she gave me another gear."
Sent off at 7-2 odds, Forever Unbridled covered the distance in 1:50.25 over a track rated fast and improved her record to eight wins from 17 starts with $3,186,880 in earnings. Abel Tasman was three lengths clear of Paradise Woods, who bested Elate by a length for third.
"She ran her race. She just got beat by a really good horse," said Bob Baffert, trainer of Abel Tasman. "That was a tough race. She really ran her heart out and just came up a touch short."
"We were in a good spot, but today just wasn't her day," said Victor Espinoza, jockey of Stellar Wind.
It was the best of days, however, for Forever Unbridled and her camp—one Fipke said they may try and top next January however, with a possible run against males in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1). With that race being contested the same week as the Eclipse Awards ceremony, they may have some hardware to accept beforehand as well.
"A championship was on the line and she's 3-for-3 now," Stewart said. "She's so good when you space those races out. She's the best I've ever trained."