CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: Unique Bella, The Pursuit of Greatness, And Rushing to Judgement

I’ve had my share of very unpopular opinions. I’m the guy that’s gotten hate mail from a Kentucky Derby-winning owner for having the gall to question the quality of Breeders’ Cup fields in 2012 (in my defense, my hypothesis was that most of the fields were bad, and history shows most of them were subpar when compared to previous and more recent renewals). I cashed when Zenyatta got beat, gleefully dashing to the windows to cash my Dangerous Midge-Blame double as an overwhelming majority of fans sobbed while stomping out the front door of the Saratoga harness track. Furthermore, if equine wunderkind Justify loses next weekend, there’s a chance I win big (for more on that, click here).

All of this serves as a lead-up to what I’m sure will be a hypothesis that goes over like a lead balloon. That thought: Unique Bella is nowhere near as good as many fans want her to be.

As I publish this, we’re less than 12 hours away from Unique Bella’s run in the Grade 1 Beholder Mile. She’ll be a heavy favorite over Grade 1 winners Paradise Woods and Vale Dori, and her presence has created a palpable buzz, even with much of the racing world waiting with baited breath for Justify to try a mile and a half. For this, Unique Bella and her connections must be commended. Racing needs stars, and it needs them to run as often as possible. Given her massive residual value as a broodmare, her connections could have easily retired her following her win in the Grade 1 La Brea, which was enough to earn her an Eclipse Award as the nation’s top female sprinter. They didn’t, and we as racing fans will benefit from her continued presence on the track.

That presence, by the way, is one of the reasons she’s so easy to like. If horse racing had central casting, she’d be what the agents would create. She’s a huge gray filly with a gigantic stride and an even bigger motor, which she puts on display during her ever-popular workout videos. Seeing Unique Bella on a racetrack is akin to seeing Hulk Hogan in his red and yellow, or seeing Jimi Hendrix tune up a Fender with those oversized fingers of his. It’s clear from the moment one first lays eyes on Unique Bella that she has a star quality about her many thoroughbreds simply do not have.

Here’s the thing, though. Take all of the workout videos, all of the flash, all of the fire-breathing schooling sessions, and all of the “possibly better than Songbird” buzz away, and what do you have? You have a filly that’s won a grand total of one Grade 1 race. You have a filly that got positively stomped in her lone Breeders’ Cup try. You have a filly that, yes, won an Eclipse Award, but did so in a division that was so weak by year’s end that there were few other plausible alternatives, and one that only locked up that award with a win in a race restricted to 3-year-old fillies.

As the great football coach Bill Parcells has said, you are what your record says you are. The record says Unique Bella is a very, very good horse, but nowhere near a great one yet. Don’t believe me? Let’s use a blind test against a number of other recent distaffers. This proved efficient in my piece analyzing Gio Ponti’s Hall of Fame credentials, and I’m hoping it serves its purpose once again. By doing this, we’ll test Unique Bella’s record using nuts-and-bolts data and see how she matches up.

Unique Bella
Career Record: 10-7-2-0
Earnings: $852,400
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Six (One)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): None (One)

Horse A
Career Record: 15-13-2-0
Earnings: $4,692,000
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): 12 (Nine)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): One (Two)

Horse B
Career Record: 22-12-5-1
Earnings: $4,811,126
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): 10 (Six)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): Two (Three)

Horse C
Career Record: 8-5-1-1
Earnings: $904,980
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Three (Two)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): None (One)

Horse D
Career Record: 16-10-3-0
Earnings: $803,068
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Four (One)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): None (One)

If you’re a hardcore horse racing fan, you can probably guess who Horse A is. That’s Songbird. Some say it’d be unfair to compare Unique Bella to Songbird, but people were doing it before Unique Bella even ran, so this is the price that must be paid. Songbird is a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer when she appears on a ballot, and for as talented as Unique Bella is, she’s got a lot of going to do to match her former stablemate in the Jerry Hollendorfer barn.

Horse B is another that’s probably easy to figure out. That’s Royal Delta, whose career record looks much better if you toss her expeditions to Dubai in 2012 and 2013. When she was on her game, few were better, and she’s another that should be enshrined in Saratoga Springs sooner rather than later. Songbird and Royal Delta are what Hall of Fame mares look like. Remember this, as we’ll revisit this bar later.

Horses C and D may be a bit tougher to figure out. Horse C is, for my money, one of the most underrated horses in training right now. That’s American Gal, whose lone one-turn loss came off an eight-month layoff in this year’s Grade 1 Madison at Keeneland. Her win in the Grade 1 Test last year was explosive, and she was also impressive in winning the Grade 1 Humana Distaff last month at Churchill Downs. I genuinely believed she was the best female sprinter in the country last year when she was healthy, but I could not vote for her based on her limited body of work (I instead chose to abstain, feeling that none of the candidates did enough to merit an Eclipse). American Gal has twice as many Grade 1 wins as Unique Bella, along with higher career earnings in two less starts and one less egg-laying Breeders’ Cup performance (she was third in the 2016 Juvenile Fillies). If Unique Bella is getting the equivalent of ticker-tape parades thrown every time she breezes, where’s the love for a horse that, on paper, has accomplished more when it matters?

Horse D is another current runner, one that got her Grade 1 win earlier this year. That’s Madison winner Finley’sluckycharm. On paper, Unique Bella outshines her, but it’s not by nearly as much as you’d think, and this serves to underscore my point. We want Unique Bella to be a great horse. Some of us have tricked ourselves into thinking she’s there already. The numbers don’t say that she is.

Like any racing contrarian, deep down, a large part of me wants to be wrong. Racing needs stars in a bad way, especially if Justify retires after the Belmont Stakes (solely a hypothetical, folks; don’t get it twisted or think I have insider knowledge, because I don’t) and we’re left with a Breeders’ Cup Classic that’s, to be kind, less than marketable.

I hope Unique Bella comes out of the starting gate like a bat out of hell. I want her to channel Dr. Fager and lay down splits that grind her rivals into dust. I want her to come home with her ears pricked and Mike Smith praying he never has to choose between his latest brilliant filly and the 3-year-old that could win the Triple Crown next weekend. If she wins in 1:33 and change, and microphones pick up Smith begging Hollendorfer to keep her with fillies and mares, I’ll consider that a win for horse racing, one that it could really use.

There’s a scenario where Unique Bella wins the Beholder, the Clement Hirsch, and the Zenyatta en route to another try at Breeders’ Cup glory. Those are all Grade 1 races, and those would provide the substance her resume lacks right now. Running the table en route to the Distaff and capping the season off with a win at Churchill Downs would put her on the level of some of the great fillies and mares we’ve seen lately, as well as separate her from some of her present-day competitors that, in all actuality, she hasn’t done enough to distance herself from yet.

At that point, I’ll happily anoint Unique Bella as a superstar. To reiterate a point made by a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach, though, you are what your record says you are. Unique Bella’s record says she’s simply not there yet.

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