Early in 2015, I wrote that American Pharoah reminded me of Seattle Slew in terms of pure talent. Seattle Slew won the Kentucky Derby in 1977 while on his way to a sweep of the Triple Crown. American Pharoah later in 2015 would likewise succeed in the Kentucky Derby while on his way to winning the Triple Crown.
Early in 2017, while Unique Bella was on her way to an absurdly easy victory in last Sunday’s Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita Park, I found myself thinking of how much she reminds me of Winning Colors.
Winning Colors was a big, enormously talented gray filly. So is Unique Bella. Not only that, there is a striking similarity between their records at this stage of their careers.
Unique Bella has won three of four career starts. Early in 1988, Winning Colors had won three of four career starts.
Winning Colors made an auspicious career bow with a 2 1/2-length win for trainer D. Wayne Lukas in a seven-furlong maiden race as a 2-year-old at the 1987 Saratoga meet. In her only other start at 2, she won a six-furlong allowance affair by 3 1/2 lengths at Santa Anita Park on Dec. 27.
In Winning Colors’ first 1988 start, she cruised to a 6 1/2-length win in Santa Anita’s six-furlong La Centinela Stakes on Jan. 20. She then was sent away as the 3-5 favorite in Santa Anita’s Las Virgenes Stakes at one mile on Feb. 20. But Winning Colors finished second in the Las Virgenes. Goodbye Halo, trained by Charlie Whittingham, won the Las Virgenes by a neck as the 7-5 second choice in the wagering.
Winning Colors and Goodbye Halo had a rematch in the 1 1/16-mile Santa Anita Oaks on March 13. Goodbye Halo was the 3-5 favorite this time, with Winning Colors 2-1 when she exited the starting gate. It turned out that the rematch was a mismatch. Winning Colors won by eight lengths. Jeanne Jones finished second, with Goodbye Halo third in the field of four.
Goodbye Halo was an outstanding filly in her own right. She would go on to win the Kentucky Oaks, Mother Goose Stakes and Coaching Club American Oaks.
Late in 1988, undefeated Personal Ensign improved her lifetime record to 13-0 in the final start of her career when she came on relentlessly on a muddy Churchill Downs track and won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff by a nose over Winning Colors. It was one of the most dramatic finishes in the history of American racing. What few people remember is Goodbye Halo finished third, only a half-length behind Winning Colors, in the 1988 BC Distaff.
After Winning Colors’ big win in the Santa Anita Oaks, Lukas then ran the Caro filly against the boys in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby on April 9. It was one of the greatest performances by a female Thoroughbred ever seen at the Great Race Place. I witnessed that race from a spot in the Santa Anita press box where I called the official Santa Anita Derby chart for the Daily Racing Form. This was what I wrote of Winning Colors for that chart 29 years ago:
“WINNING COLORS, away in alert fashion, established the early pace while under a snug rating hold, drew away on the far turn when asked somewhat, entered the stretch with a commanding lead, responded when roused with the whip periodically left handed from the top of the stretch to midstretch, maintained a commanding advantage from midstretch to the finish while under a brisk hand ride and was a decisive winner.”
After the Santa Anita Derby, Winning Colors made headlines when she won the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby on May 7 by a neck. Forty Niner closed strongly to finish second. Risen Star, who was full of run late after racing extremely wide into the stretch, ended up third, three lengths behind Forty Niner.
Winning Colors remains one of just three fillies to have ever won the Kentucky Derby. The first was the great Regret in 1915. The second was Genuine Risk in 1980.
Unique Bella, trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, finished second as a 1-5 favorite in a five-furlong maiden race when unveiled at Santa Anita last June 23. She then went to the sidelines with tender shins.
Following Unique Bella’s defeat in her career debut, she now has won three straight laughers. The daughter of Tapit and 2010 BC Distaff winner Unrivaled Belle registered a 10 1/4-length maiden victory at 6 1/2 furlongs Nov. 26 at Del Mar. She followed that with an effortless 7 1/2-length win in Santa Anita’s Santa Ynez Stakes at seven furlongs on Jan. 8.
Last Sunday’s Las Virgenes was the first time Unique Bella raced around two turns. She was even money when she won the Santa Ynez. After the Santa Ynez, I wrote: “I assure you it will be a long, long time before Unique Bella is as good a price as even money again.”
Unique Bella was nowhere close to even money in the Las Virgenes. She was pounded down to 1-10 favoritism. She sat in third early while relaxing nicely for jockey Mike Smith, then gained the lead nearing midway on the backstretch. After sporting a 2 1/2-length lead on the far turn with a quarter-mile to go, Unique Bella “drew off in the stretch without encouragement,” as accurately noted in the official Equibase chart. She won by 8 3/4 lengths.
Mopotism finished second. Also left in Unique Bella’s wake was none other than Champagne Room, the 2016 Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old filly. Champagne Room had to settle for third in the Las Virgenes while making her first start since winning the BC Juvenile Fillies last Nov. 5.
SPEED FIGURES RISING
Unique Bella’s final time in her Las Virgenes victory was 1:35.66. Her Beyer Speed Figures continue their upward trajectory. Unique Bella was assigned a 73 Beyer when defeated at first asking, an 87 in her maiden win, a 91 in the Santa Ynez and a 98 in the Las Virgenes.
Hollendorfer and Smith also collaborated to win the 2016 Las Virgenes with Songbird, who was making her first start of the year. I wrote that after Songbird had a 10-length lead with a furlong to go, “Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith was cognizant that there was absolutely no need to ‘run up the score’ in the final furlong with the overwhelming favorite. Smith allowed Songbird to canter home to a 6 1/2-length triumph in 1:36.84.”
Songbird has been voted Eclipse Awards as champion 2-year-old filly of 2015 and champion 3-year-old filly of 2016. Her lone defeat in 12 career starts was when the older multiple Eclipse Award winner Beholder beat her by a scant nose in an epic BC Distaff at Santa Anita last Nov. 4.
Songbird was assigned a modest 87 Beyer Speed Figure for her Las Virgenes victory. I wrote that it was yet another example in which it would have been a truer reflection of Songbird’s performance if a + were added to her Beyer because she was far from all out. When a horse wins a race and is far from all out to do so, Beyer Speed Figures do not take that into account.
As far as I am concerned, Unique Bella’s Beyer Speed Figures are as follows: 73 when she was defeated at first asking, 87+ in her maiden win, 91+ in the Santa Ynez and 98+ in the Las Virgenes. In other words, in all three of her victories, Unique Bella has been far from all out.
As terrific as Unique Bella looked last Sunday, Hollendorfer actually once trained a filly who posted a bigger Beyer Speed Figure in the Las Virgenes than Unique Bella’s 98. Hollendorfer won the 1991 Las Virgenes with Lite Light, who recorded a 104 Beyer.
According to the American Racing Manual, Serena’s Song and Excellent Meeting are tied for having the highest Beyer Speed Figure in the Las Virgenes. Serena’s Song recorded a 108 Beyer in the 1995 Las Virgenes, a figure matched by Excellent Meeting in the 1999 renewal.
NATIONAL THREE-YEAR-OLD DIVISION NOW JUMBLED
Classic Empire, winner of last year’s BC Juvenile and voted a 2016 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male, was a dominant No. 1 in last week’s first NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll of 2017. He received 28 of the 30 first-place votes cast.
But the national 3-year-old picture changed dramatically and became quite muddled after Classic Empire struggled home a well-beaten third as a 1-2 favorite in last Saturday’s 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Irish War Cry led past every pole in the Holy Bull to remain undefeated in three career starts. Early in 2007, his sire, Curlin, made a sensational career debut at Gulfstream when he won a seven-furlong maiden race by 12 3/4 lengths. Curlin would go on to be voted Horse of the Year in 2007 and 2008.
Irish War Cry won the Holy Bull by 3 3/4 lengths and was assigned a career-best 97 Beyer Speed Figure. Irish War Cry previously had won a pair of races at Laurel, including the Marylander Stakes on Dec. 31 in his second career start. Graham Motion conditions Irish War Cry. Motion won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom.
Classic Empire was a washy mess before the Holy Bull. I can’t help but wonder if a lot of NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll voters also may have been sweating profusely when trying to figure out which 3-year-old to put at No. 1 on their ballot this week.
Only three horses received a first-place vote in last week’s NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll. Following Classic Empire’s 8 3/4-length defeat in the Holy Bull, eight horses received a first-place vote this week.
As for my NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll ballot this week, I put Unique Bella at No. 1. Keep in mind this poll is a ranking of America’s leading 3-year-olds, male and female. It is not a Kentucky Derby poll. If it were a Kentucky Derby poll, I would not put Unique Bella in the top spot. That’s because Hollendorfer has indicated that the Kentucky Derby is not in the plans for Unique Bella, who is scheduled at this point to run in the Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita on March 4, Santa Anita Oaks on April 8, then the Kentucky Oaks on May 5.
When it comes to the NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll, my rankings are based mainly on what a horse has accomplished. In terms of my Kentucky Derby Top 10, my rankings are based on how I view a horse’s chances to win the Run for the Roses.
Who is the best 3-year-old in the land right now? In my opinion, it’s Unique Bella. Think of it this way. What if all of the leading 3-year-olds ran in the same race today? Who would be the betting favorite? I believe it would be Unique Bella.
And who deserves the top spot in the NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll this week? In my opinion, it is Unique Bella.
Only five of the other 41 voters this week also put Unique Bella at No. 1 on their ballot. Irish War Cry, who was No. 27 last week, zoomed all the way up to the top spot in the poll this week.
Here is this week’s NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll (first-place votes in parenthesis):
1. Irish War Cry (7)
2. McCraken (8)
3. Classic Empire (8)
4. Mastery (7)
5. El Areeb (2)
6. Unique Bella (6)
7. Gormley (2)
8. Mo Town (1)
9. Practical Joke
10. American Anthem
There is no lack of clarity in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll, with Pegasus World Cup Invitational winner Arrogate again receiving all the first-place votes this week:
1. Arrogate (41)
4. Shaman Ghost
5. Gun Runner
9. Lady Eli
10. Unique Bella
This is my first Kentucky Derby Top 10 of 2017 (again, this is how I rank horses in terms of how I view their chances to win the Run for the Roses):
1. Irish War Cry
4. American Anthem
5. El Areeb
6. Classic Empire
8. Practical Joke
10. Mo Town
PEGASUS WORLD CUP FINAL TIME CHANGED
As I wrote last week, many questioned the accuracy of Arrogate’s official Pegasus World Cup final time of 1:47.61 in hundredths, or 1:47 3/5 in fifths, in the belief it actually was faster.
“No major track has had as much in the way of timing issues through the years as Gulfstream,” I wrote. “Would I be surprised if Arrogate’s official final time of 1:47.61 is wrong? No.”
Two days later, on Feb. 3, it was announced the final time for the Pegasus World Cup had been changed.
“A correction has been made to the official finish time for the 1 1/8-mile Pegasus World Cup (G1) run at Gulfstream Park on January 28, 2017,” a press release stated. “Upon subsequent detailed review of the race performance data, it has been determined that the winning horse ARROGATE (Unbridled’s Song) finished the race in 1:46.83. The finish time sets a Gulfstream Park track record for the 1 1/8-mile race run on the dirt surface (previous track record at this distance held by LEA at the 2014 Donn Hcp in 1:46.86).
“Gulfstream Park employs Trakus for its tracking and timing services…Trakus regrets the incorrect reporting of the finish time and apologizes for any inconvenience caused to our partner, Gulfstream Park, their fans and horsemen, and all industry stakeholders.”
The $12 million Pegasus World Cup, the richest horse race in history, was run on Jan. 28. But Arrogate did not get credit for his actual final time or get his due for breaking a track record until six days later. This means Arrogate now has set a track record in two of his last three starts. He also broke Saratoga’s 1 1/4-mile track record by four-fifths of a second when he won the Travers Stakes by 13 1/2 lengths in 1:59 1/5 (1:59.36).
By comparison, when someone ties or breaks a time record in swimming at the Olympics, it is known immediately. It does not reflect well on horse racing as a sport when it takes six days to get the correct final time of the richest horse race ever run. But, hey, at least it took only six days in this instance instead of the 39 years it took to get Secretariat’s correct final time of 1:53 instead of 1:54 2/5 for the 1973 Preakness Stakes.