Unique Bella and Mike Smith after her La Brea Stakes win at Santa Anita Park

Unique Bella and Mike Smith after her La Brea Stakes win at Santa Anita Park

Benoit Photo

Unique Bella Kicks Off Season in Santa Maria

The champion female sprinter of 2017 won't be sprinting in her first start of 2018.

The champion female sprinter of 2017 won't be sprinting in her first start of 2018.

Unique Bella's connections have consistently maintained that the gray daughter of Tapit 's late season restriction to sprinting was circumstantial and they backed up that talk with an entry in the $200,000 Santa Maria Stakes (G2) Feb. 10 at Santa Anita Park.

The 1 1/16-mile Santa Maria is a departure from the final three starts of Unique Bella's 2017 campaign—when she won the LA Woman Stakes (G3), misfired in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) to finish seventh, and capped her season with a score in the Dec. 26 La Brea (G1)—but it was always the plan of owner Don Alberto Stable to get her back to two turns.

BALAN: Unique Bella Wears Down Paradise Woods to Take La Brea

Just 11 months ago, the big gray stretched out to 8 1/2 furlongs for the first time in the Santa Ysabel Stakes (G3) and reinforced her claim as the favorite for the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1). But after a shin injury, surgery, and seven months off from racing, her connections wanted to take it relatively easy, with the Breeders' Cup as a target. With the options of the Filly & Mare Sprint or the 1 1/8-mile Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1), they decided to stay short.

BALAN: Unique Bella Game in Santa Ysabel Win

"We didn't feel like we had the time (to get a foundation in her) to go farther," Don Alberto racing manager Fernando Diaz-Valdes said of the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained filly. "A mile and an eighth was too much, but after the Breeders' Cup, which was quite disappointing, she stayed sprinting because the La Brea was the last grade 1 for 3-year-old (fillies).

"Now it's time to move forward."

Part of moving forward is looking forward to potential blockbuster matchups in what appears to be a stout distaff division, and Diaz-Valdes relishes the idea of going up against other heavyweights.

"She proved that she was outstanding (in 2017)," Diaz-Valdes said. "She beat (Kentucky Oaks winner) Abel Tasman (in the Santa Ysabel), she beat Paradise Woods (in the La Brea), and we thought she was the best filly in the country.

"But when you turn 4, some improve, some don't, and some get tired. At some point we're going to have to go against Paradise Woods and Abel Tasman again, and we're looking forward to that. With horses like Vale Dori and Forever Unbridled (also still in training), those are the kinds of races that are great for the sport, the fans—that's what it's all about in this game, isn't it?"

Diaz-Valdes also said, if all goes well Saturday, Unique Bella could end up in the March 17 Santa Margarita Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita and/or the April 13 Apple Blossom (G1) at Oaklawn Park down the road.

"We want to go against the best of the best, and we're talking about a division where you could run great and still get beat," he said.

The Santa Maria won't feature any of those threats at the top end of the distaff division, but offers an interesting challenge for Unique Bella, even for a short field.

Three return from the Jan. 13 La Canada Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita, including winner Mopotism, who broke through for her first graded score with a head victory over Mended. Bayakoa Stakes (G2) winner Majestic Heat (fifth in the La Canada) and stakes winner Shenandoah Queen (fourth in the La Canada) are also in the field.

CROSBY: Mopotism Breaks Through in La Canada Photo Finish

The wildcard in the field is Kathy's Song, who has raced exclusively on turf since she moved to the barn of trainer Richard Baltas during the summer of 2017. She's won two races from six starts for Baltas, including a victory in the Miss America Stakes at Golden Gate Fields Dec. 10, and came in third in the American Oaks (G1T) last time out Dec. 30. The Candy Ride  filly's only previous start on dirt came in February of 2017, when she finished a far-back second in a maiden special weight event at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots for trainer Brad Cox.