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.

Belmont Park, Santa Anita, and Penn National Analysis & Tickets (6/3/17)

BELMONT PARK

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1

R1: 5
R2: 1,7,8
R3: 4,6
R4: ALL
R5: 6,7

96 bets, $48

I’m going against a favorite right away at Belmont Park. The field is not great, and if My Uncle Al channels his California form for new trainer Robertino Diodoro, he probably wins. However, the lack of a published workout since his most recent start is a big red flag to me, so I’m looking elsewhere. I don’t think there’s much speed in the race, and that leads me to likely second choice Correjon. He took a step forward last time out with the addition of blinkers, and I’m hoping he gets brave on the front end against a less-than-inspiring group.

The second race is tough due to a similar lack of early speed. I don’t love the May 10th race many in here exit, so while I used Violet Blue and Blenheim Palace, I also threw in Camisole on the rail, who may benefit from the marathon distance she tries in this spot. Brewing and Monster Mash both drop down in the third, and I’m using both. I prefer the former at a slightly better price, though, as he could work out a prime stalking trip just off the plentiful speed that seems to exist on paper.

I bought the fourth race because I did not have a clue (hey, at least I’m honest), and I’ll look to close this out by using River Date and John’s Island in the payoff leg. River Date seems like the lone speed on paper, but John’s Island goes out for a barn that is very solid with new acquisitions after being claimed following an April win at Aqueduct.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

R7: ALL
R8: 3,4,6,10
R9: 7,9
R10: 8

80 bets, $40

We have another “I do not have a clue” race to kick things off, so hopefully we get a price home in the first leg. The eighth isn’t much easier, and it may be the best betting race on the card. My top pick is Summer of Joy, who switches surfaces and drops down in class, but it’s far from a situation where I absolutely love the horse.

I narrowed things down a bit in the Pennine Ridge, which goes as the ninth race. There’s potential for a major speed duel between Oscar Performance and Secretary at War, so I used Ticonderoga and Good Samaritan, both of whom would love such a setup given their closing styles.

We finish the sequence, though, with my best bet of the day. Starstruck Kitten is a full sibling to Bobby’s Kitten and Camelot Kitten, among others, and his debut was far from bad. He was wide turning for home, but was beaten less than three lengths. The drop into the maiden claiming ranks may raise a few eyebrows, but the Ramseys have said they are downsizing their racing operation, so this doesn’t seem like a panicky drop. Additionally, this does not appear to be the strongest field for the level, and if Starstruck Kitten improves at second asking, I think he’ll be very tough to beat. He’s 5/2 on the morning line, and I’ll be very happy if we get that price come post time.

SANTA ANITA

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1

R1: 5
R2: 3,4
R3: 4,6,7
R4: 3,5,6
R5: 1,2,4

54 bets, $27

I’ll start things off with a single. Kenzou’s Rhythm drops back down to the right level following a failed stakes try last time out. Before that, he reeled off three in a row, including a win two back at a similar level over what was probably a better field than he faces here. As such, I’m singling the 8/5 morning line favorite to kick off the Pick Five.

I think the second is a two-horse race between 6/5 favorite Individual Design and 9/5 second choice Trinitys Turn, so I’m using them both before going three-deep in each of the last three legs. I’m using the three likely favorites in the third race, but my price play of the day comes in the fourth.

Yes, Algorhythmic has won two in a row coming down the hill, and Jeremy’s Legacy has a ton of back class. Either can win, but don’t sleep on Lindeza, who’s a square 12-1 on the morning line. Her most recent effort was a return off of a 15-month layoff, and she didn’t break well while being stuck with the dreaded rail post at this route. However, despite being forced to run well off the pace and being hounded by fellow rivals turning for home, she didn’t quit and was only beaten 1 3/4 lengths for third. I think there are a lot of positive things to take from that effort, and her most recent workout was sharp enough to make me think an improved performance is on the horizon here. Getting off the rail will certainly help, as will a clean start.

Finally, I’ll use three short prices in the fifth to close things out. Privy has worked well for John Sadler and may not have to be much to beat this group, but Lostintranzlation comes back to dirt while dropping in class and Gypsy Treasure adds blinkers after an encouraging debut. There may be some very short prices in this sequence, but if Lindeza shakes things up in the fourth, we could still be rewarded handsomely.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

R6: 1,3,7
R7: 3,4,7
R8: 1,2
R9: 3,4,7

54 bets, $27

Right away, we have a beatable favorite in the first leg. I used Quality Line, but this appears to be a race without much early speed, save for Awesome Image to the outside. Gary Stevens riding Scatter the Moon is also worth noting, especially given that one’s eye-catching debut at Turf Paradise.

The seventh is the Shoemaker Mile, and I’m betting on a pace meltdown. Heart to Heart and What a View both want the lead, and my hope is that their duel will set things up for one of three closers to fly home late for the winner’s share of the purse and an all-expenses-paid trip to this fall’s Breeders’ Cup Mile. Of the three I used, I like Bolo most. He was probably too close to the pace last time out, and this trip should be more to his liking.

The Beholder Mile will only have three starters. I used Vale Dori and Stellar Wind and opted to leave Finest City off my ticket. I just think that one wants one turn, not two, although I can’t fault the connections for trying this spot (especially given the short field!).

Finally, we’ll end the card with a downhill turf sprint. Conquest Smartee and Tina’s Exchange will likely be the top two betting choices, but this race also features Aussie Fox, a first-time starter from the Carla Gaines barn. The dam of this 3-year-old colt is graded stakes winner Foxysox, which makes this colt a half to multiple stakes-winning mare Curlin’s Fox. She’s run some very strong races coming down the hill, and given the pedigree, I had to use her little brother.

PENN NATIONAL

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

R6: 4,7
R7: 2,4,7
R8: 4,5
R9: 7,8

24 bets, $12

I’m not spending a ton of money on this ticket, because I think there’s a real chance it doesn’t pay a whole lot. Having said that, given the likely pool and the stakes races that are involved, this is still a sequence worth playing.

Adorable Miss will be tough in the Penn Oaks, but I had to use Party Boat, who comes in on an upward numbers trend and won a $100,000 stakes race last time out. I was tempted to take a stand against Richard’s Boy in the Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup, as I’m far from crazy about the two-week turnaround (especially since he traveled back to California following his win in Maryland). Still, the five-furlong distance fits him like a glove, so I couldn’t leave him off the ticket. I used likely second choice Rainbow Heir, and I’m also using Take Cover, who was a price play for me last time out at Pimlico. He ran a nice race that day, flying late to be beaten less than two lengths by Richard’s Boy. He won this race last year, and he’ll likely be running well late here at a nice price.

If Matt King Coal makes the lead in the Mountainview, I think he’ll be very difficult to beat. However, if a pace duel ensues, hard-knocker Page McKenney stands to benefit. This horse has run 47 times in his career, and he’s hit the board on 36 occasions. The four-legged ATM could sit a dream stalking trip behind a fast pace, so I threw him in.

Finally, I’m going two-deep in the Penn Mile. Big Score is probably the best horse in the race, and he’s an easy horse to root for given the modest pedigree and his running style. However, I also used Frostmourne, who’s improved in every start and makes his second run off the bench here. The presence of Irad Ortiz, Jr., is a big plus, and he could sit a perfect trip.