The best sophomore currently in training in North America, arguably, will race this weekend — but not in one of the high-profile Kentucky Derby (GI) preps set to be contested at Gulfstream Park and Aqueduct. On Saturday, while the connections of the colts and geldings hungry for points to make the gate for the Run For the Roses make appearances in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GI) and the Gotham Stakes (GI), superstar Unique Bella will face a field of six in the $100,000 Santa Ysabel Stakes (GIII) at Santa Anita.
The warm weather that returned to the Southern California area by week’s end will be gone by the 3:00 PT post time for the Santa Ysabel Stakes, which has been carded as the day’s sixth on the nine-race program. While the rain will hold off for another day, the temperature will be cool and in the mid-60s under mostly cloudy skies. A fast main track and firm turf course is expected, however.
The Santa Ysabel once was just a non-descript stakes for 3-year-old fillies on the Santa Anita calendar, and even though some really good ladies have won the race, including Jeanne Jones, Gorgeous, Antespend, Sharp Cat, Surfside and Sweet Catomine, the 1 1/16-mile main track test has become a much more prominent stop on the road to the Kentucky Oaks (GI) over the last couple of years.
In 2015, champion Stellar Wind emerged victorious before heading to Louisville to be favored in the Oaks and, last year, Songbird, who at the time held a similar position as Unique Bella in that she was the clear leader of her age group regardless of sex and was highly questionable to make the Derby gate, was the favorite before illness kept her out of the Run for the Lilies.
Aside from her debut last year, Don Alberto Stable’s Unique Bella has been nothing short of spectacular. She has gotten progressively stronger and more impressive with each start and and has yet to turn a hair in anything she does, from racing to training and even schooling. The Jerry Hollendorfer-trained daughter of Tapit and the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (GI) winner Unrivaled Belle will have fellow Hall of Famer Mike Smith aboard once again and while the rider has been fairly cautious about his positive comments about her, nobody knows better talent than the regular jockey of some of the best females ever, including Inside Information, Zenyatta and the aforementioned Songbird.
Unique Bella’s win in the Las Virgenes Stakes (GII) last time out was deceptively good, as she sped through quick splits without being asked and earned a huge 106 BRISnet speed figure for the effort. For this start she drew the rail, which isn’t perfect, but she seems so much better than the field she’ll face on Saturday that she’d probably be OK to start from the box seat section and still win.
Abel Tasman makes her first start of the year and her first since capturing the Los Alamitos Starlet (GI) three months ago. The China Horse Club and Clearsky Farms-owned daughter of Quality Road would otherwise be favored in this race without the presence of Unique Bella, despite the brief break, but will more than likely have to settle for second billing and, therefore, most likely, second place. The Simon Callaghan trainee is riding a three-race win streak and has been looking exceptional in the mornings. Her biggest asset is her late-running style, however, and she will have plenty of pace to close at in the lane. The hard part will be getting past the favorite, who has yet to take a deep breath in any of her races.
The Bob Baffert-trained Noted and Quoted won last year’s Chandelier Stakes (GI) before finishing a disappointing seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) and, after a few weeks off, she returned to training a couple months ago and has looked exceptional in the mornings. The diminutive daughter of The Factor has probably hit her distance limit at this 8 ½ furlongs, but she’s tough and her best performance from just behind the pace should be good enough for a board-hitting return.
California Oaks winner Tap It All returns to her home base after traveling to pick up a couple of wins on an all-weather surface and turf. A familiar Reddam Racing runner in a stakes race, she will need her best to keep up with the top bunch.
What What What is certainly consistent and has started a whopping 11 times, with a record of three wins, two second-place finishes and five show efforts, in nine months. The former claimer makes her first start for trainer Doug O’Neill and while talented, is a definitely a cut below the top choices in here.
Mistressofthenight makes her first start against winners since breaking her maiden last out for the red-hot Richard Baltas barn. Loaded with potential, she’s a bit behind where she needs to be to be competitive here.
Spooky Woods is Unique Bella’s stablemate and also faces winners for the first time. While bred for this distance, she also has some catching up to do.