Long odds-on shot Unique Bella wins but gives backers a fright
Unique Bella appeared to be on cruise control toward her second straight Grade 1 victory at Del Mar, but the last few strides got a little shaky for the 1-9 favorite.
After she coasted around most of the main track in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes on Sunday, the big gray/roan Tapit filly started to shorten her strides in the final half furlong as a familiar foe came surprisingly close.
A four-length lead over La Force - who also finished a hard-closing second to Unique Bella last time out in the Beholder Mile Stakes - shrunk to a half-length at the wire. Unique Bella finished the 1m½f miles in 1:44.40 and jockey Mike Smith never hit her with the whip, but the margin of victory was far from comfortable.
"She won, and we're happy with the way she did it," said winning trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. "Until they hit the wire, you're always concerned if they'll get there. She's been off a while, and we wanted to get a win so we could plan her next race, which either will be back east or here. We're not sure yet."
Unique Bella maintained a length and a half lead as she set fractions of :23.25, :46.80, and 1:11.56 through six furlongs, with 7-1 second choice Yuvesti in a stalking position in second, well ahead of the trailing horses in the field of five. Yuvetsi tried to keep up in the final turn but soon faded from contention as La Force - who was ten lengths behind the leader after a half-mile - began to wind up for her rally.
La Force had Unique Bella in her sights in the stretch but ran out of ground. Bernina Star closed from last to finish third, nine and a quarter lengths behind La Force.
"My filly ran the race of her life," said Drayden Van Dyke, La Force's jockey. "She was really trying, but I saw Unique Bella jump forward when we got close to her. (Unique Bella) dug back in."
Smith said Unique Bella lost a shoe leaving the gate and acknowledged the race was not her best effort.
"She ran OK," Smith said. "This wasn't her best race, but it was OK. She blew a shoe coming away from there, and she was a little uncomfortable (because of it). When she heard that other mare coming, she surged again. This wasn't her best, but it was good enough."