Collected's 'sandwich game' in San Antonio, Unique Bella's favorable trip in La Brea

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TwinSpires Staff

December 28th, 2017

by Dick Powell

Santa Anita kicked off its stakes schedule on Tuesday and it led off with a shocker in the San Antonio Stakes (G2). Re-scheduled to act as a prep for the Pegasus World Cup (G1) coming up in 4 1/2 weeks, the $300,000 purse only attracted a field of five when TOP OF THE GAME scratched.

The morning line favorite at 3-5 was COLLECTED, winner of the Pacific Classic (G1) over ARROGATE. He came back in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), chasing GUN RUNNER to be a game second, and was coming into the San Antonio Stakes off three straight BRIS speed ratings of 110 or more.

Sometimes in sports betting, you come across what is called “a sandwich game.” A team has a big game and then another big game two games later. The game in the middle is the “sandwich game” and often times, the team is caught looking ahead to the next big game and not totally focused on the “sandwich game.” Teams involved in “sandwich games” are usually poor bets since they are poor value.

Collected was undefeated in four starts last year for Bob Baffert and it was only Gun Runner’s gate-to-wire tour-de-force that denied him a championship. Nominated for the Pegasus World Cup, Baffert had to walk the tight rope of giving Collected some rest after his last big race while keeping him sharp for his next big race. The San Antonio fell perfectly on the schedule and Baffert started him and multi-millionaire HOPPERTUNITY, who won the San Antonio twice before.

In the San Antonio, GIANT EXPECTATIONS, the longest shot on the board at 13-1, went to the front for Gary Stevens and was chased by PRIME ATTRACTION. New rider Mike Smith took Collected back to last and was content to lope along behind slow fractions of 24.69 and 49.19. When the field of five figured to bunch up nearing the top of the stretch, Giant Expectations was having nothing of it and spurted forward, increasing his margin to three lengths with a furlong to go.

Smith pulled Collected to the outside for his run and it just wasn’t there. At 3-10, the only drama was if he would hold off Hoppertunity for third. New York-bred Giant Expectations pulled off the upset by 3 1/4 easy lengths and Collected was a non-threatening third.

Here is where the “sandwich game” aspect of the equation comes into play. Knowing that a $16 million race is coming up, how tight did Baffert have Collected for the San Antonio? His third-place finish might have been a surprise, but not a shock, and it would not surprise me if he came back to run well in the Pegasus. In a lot of ways, the San Antonio was the perfect prep for Collected to go on to the Pegasus If you look at it as a paid workout. Or, a “sandwich game.”

The highlight of the Santa Anita Opening Day card was the La Brea Stakes (G1). It was anticipated that it would be a two-horse battle between UNIQUE BELLA and PARADISE WOODS and it lived up to its billing.

Unique Bella broke a bit sluggishly from post 3 and Mike Smith let the speed clear and steered her to the middle of the backstretch where she relaxed beautifully. Flavien Prat figured to get an outside, stalking trip aboard Paradise Woods but he wound up having to make a decision going into the far turn.

PRINCESS KAREN had a short lead from her outside post and Prat saw an inviting opening to her inside going into the far turn. He went for it and Paradise Woods came out of the turn at the top of the stretch with a short lead down on the rail.

Unfortunately, the shortest way home did not allow Prat to give her a bit of a rest and when the running got serious, there was Smith and Unique Bella about to pounce. The two battled gamely through the lane until Unique Bella surged to a three-quarter-length victory in 1:21.49 for the seven furlongs.

According to Trakus, Unique Bella ran 27 feet farther than Paradise Woods but the ground loss was to her advantage. It enabled her to relax on the outside and move when Smith wanted to. Prat could have let Princess Karen go on and tip to her outside but Kent Desormeaux kept looking to his inside while leaving the hole open. I give Prat credit for never hesitating but on paper, I would have guessed that Paradise Woods, from post 7, would have been able to stalk Unique Bella, from post 3.

It was the other way around and Unique Bella avenged her loss in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1). Was it enough to clinch the Eclipse Award for Female Sprinter? That is why voters should wait for all of 2017’s race to be run before casting their ballots.

I spoke too soon about how bad winter can be in the Saratoga area. This picture was taken Christmas morning. The dog is my female Akita, Sadie. She is happy.