Champion Unique Bella — in her first start outside of her home state of California — has been installed the favorite for the $700,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (GI) for older fillies and mares today at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Owned by Don Alberto Stable and trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, Unique Bella earned an Eclipse Award as last year’s top female sprinter and the 4-year-old gray daughter of Tapit will once again be carrying regular jockey Mike Smith, who has already won six Apple Blossoms in his career.
The local weather today in Hot Springs is currently dry, but thunderstorms are expected to roll through the area by post time. The race has been carded as the day’s 10th with a post time of 5:38 p.m. ET.
Unique Bella, who is coming off a nine-length victory in the Santa Maria Handicap (GII) at Santa Anita park two months ago, was reported to have battled a minor illness following that score, which caused her to miss some training, but she’s been back in top form and training like the machine she is for several weeks at her home base, including a lovely half-mile in :46.80 garnering the coveted “breezing” tag last weekend.
Triple-digit speed, pace and class figures are her norm and while she’s a champion sprinter, she’s won two races at this 1 1/16-mile distance and is bred to route. While her speed is her deadliest weapon, she can and has rated successfully and has the best rider in the game to decide what her best trip is. She’ll offer no value at the windows, but she’s also going to be very tough to beat. Sometimes, enjoying a champion’s performance is the best payoff.
Multiple Grade 3 winner Unbridled Mo will also be making her Oaklawn debut off a fourth-place finish in the $200,000 Royal Delta Stakes (GIII) on Feb. 19 at Gulfstream Park, her first start off a 10-month absence. The daughter of Uncle Mo has been fairly consistent when she races, but also consistent in being sent to the sidelines over her nine-race career. All of her career wins have been at this distance, she’s a good shipper and trainer Todd Pletcher has put some strong works into her over the past few weeks at Palm Beach Downs. Local jock Ricardo Santana Jr. takes the reins and the pair will likely sit off the pace and mid-pack, saving their best run for the stretch drive.
Multiple Grade 2 winner Farrell, third in the Azeri last out, has had some trouble finding the winner’s circle this year. The daughter of Malibu Moon had an outstanding sophomore season, earning four wins from six starts, and began this year with a stakes win. Two subsequent graded stakes appearances have produced less-than-anticipated finishes and a big question mark about whether she’s held form. She’s a winner here at Oaklawn, has won five of seven starts at this distance and the Coffeepot Stables homebred is in good hands with trainer Wayne Catalano. She’s been working great and should be fit; the questions are if she can hang on the front end with the favorite and what will happen if the rains come, since she’s struggled in the past over off tracks.
Streamline was second in the 2016 Apple Blossom and third a year ago. She was an uncharacteristic eighth in the Azeri last out, but she likes this track (in the money in ten of 11 starts, with three wins) and the distance (ITM in 12 of 13 starts, four being wins) and has been training exceptionally well. She may be worth a piece for exotics. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens rides for trainer Brian Williamson.
Tiger Moth won the Houston Ladies Classic (GIII) two back and then was a troubled fourth in the Azeri last out. Overall, she seems just a cut below the top two, but a smooth trip should be decent enough to earn her a share.
Famously Kissed seems in way over her head against the likes of Unique Bella, Unbridled Mo and Farrell. Beach Flower’s connections picked a tough spot to jump into the graded stakes ranks. She could be a race-filler, but if she makes the gate she will have her work cut out for her.