Should Unique Bella pursue the Kentucky Derby trail?
Her raw talent makes the idea seductive. After annihilating her opponents in a sprint maiden at Del Mar and in the Santa Ynez (G2), Unique Bella was every bit as lethal in her two-turn debut in the Las Virgenes. Her Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith was motionless in the saddle as the gray took over on the backstretch, breezing past the pacesetter after an opening quarter in :22.82
Unique Bella wasn’t deliberately being aggressive – she was just naturally too fast to contain. And deceptively fast at that. Looking at her, you wouldn’t guess she sped a half in :45.62 without appearing to take a deep breath. By the time she reached the six-furlong mark in 1:10.27, Unique Bella had ripped the stuffing out of her rivals, including champion Champagne Room, who couldn’t even salvage second from the 13-1 Mopotism.
By breezing the mile in 1:35.66, unextended, Unique Bella begged the question of how fast she could go if required. More to the point, who might actually pose a challenge to her? No one in her own division out West can make her break a sweat, and although there are some solid fillies on the East Coast, none has displayed her sheer brilliance.
Hence the calls for Unique Bella to take a bold approach and try the boys on the Kentucky Derby (G1) trail.
Her Hall of Fame trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, isn’t enamored of the idea.
“I don’t think so,” Hollendorfer said when asked in the post-race interview.
That response was predictable, since he was in a similar position last year with then-undefeated Songbird. Resisting the calls to go versus males, he pointed his stable star to the Kentucky Oaks (G1). As it turned out, Songbird spiked a fever and ended up missing the Oaks. The rest of the season was a tour de force for her, until she was denied by the future Hall of Famer Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1).
Although Unique Bella is drawing the inevitable comparisons to Songbird, she’s a slightly different case. Songbird had much more experience at two. Not only did she race twice as much as Unique Bella (four starts to two), but she was dominating three Grade 1s as a juvenile. Most significantly, Songbird had two routes under her belt, in the Chandelier (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1), before hitting the Oaks trail last spring.
Despite her resume, Songbird’s connections weren’t even tempted enough to nominate her to the Triple Crown. Owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm had suffered the heartbreak of losing his filly Eight Belles after her gallant runner-up effort in the 2008 Derby. Porter consistently said that Songbird could take on males later, when she was mature, but not in a Triple Crown race.
Unique Bella’s ownership, however, is open to the concept. The racing manager for Don Alberto Stable, Fernando Diaz-Valdes, left all options on the table.
“I think it’s too early to say,” Diaz-Valdes told Santa Anita publicity. “We’ll have to take a look at what’s happening around the country. We have to go to the next level first…
“I’m told I should go to the Kentucky Derby, when the time comes, but we’ll see.”
It’s worth noting that her Chilean-based ownership runs fillies against the boys at home, in a sporting nature of wanting to go for the ultimate prize. Indeed, Don Alberto’s homebred sophomore Color Rosa defeated males in last October’s Premio El Ensayo Mega (G1). On Sunday, Color Rosa was among five (!) Don Alberto fillies in the El Derby (G1), with their homebred Hachi faring best in third.
Perhaps it’s not too rash to speculate that Unique Bella was given a Triple Crown nomination by the Don Alberto Stable, with Hollendorfer acquiescing to the owner. Songbird didn’t get one presumably because Porter and Hollendorfer were on the same page.
In the post-Las Virgenes quotes furnished by Santa Anita, Hollendorfer was diplomatic but conveyed his view.
“I really like to concentrate on the filly races,” the trainer responded. “If an opportunity came to do something else we’d probably have to consider that, but I’d like to keep her against the fillies if I can.
“I’d like to keep her in California (for the Santa Anita Oaks [G1] on April 8), just like I did with Songbird last year. There’s enough money to run out here and run against the girls, not the boys. I think we’ll try and run here and if we’d be fortunate enough, we’d point to the (Kentucky) Oaks.”
While such an itinerary won’t set the pulses racing, it may be in Unique Bella’s best interest. As freakish as she is, she only just broke her maiden at the end of November, and she’s yet to race beyond a mile.
The Derby trail can be punishing and unforgiving, with no guarantee that you can just shrug it off and start over as if it never happened. And for a filly of her unbounded talent, the risk of pushing her may be greater than the possible reward.
As easy as it looks to project what Unique Bella can do against the boys right now, a horseman like Hollendorfer understands too well that they’re not machines. If he believes that taking the softer options now will serve Unique Bella in the long run, I’ll side with him.
That said, here’s a potential compromise, a squaring of the circle: if making the Kentucky Derby may be asking a bit much, why not revisit the question after the Kentucky Oaks? If at that point, Unique Bella looks like the next Rachel Alexandra, you can always aim for the Preakness (G1). The field will be smaller, lessening the chances of a brutally rough trip, and the 1 3/16 miles represents a gentler step up in distance. Most of all, tabling the issue until after the Kentucky Oaks takes the pressure off, allowing Hollendorfer to prepare her as he wants.
One thing we can all agree on: a hope that Unique Bella continues to dazzle us all year, like Songbird, and become a part of an epic Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar.
Photo courtesy of Benoit