This Week in Racing: On Unique Bella and drafting Derby hopefuls

December 31, 2017 08:00am

The 2018 Older Dirt Female division just got a whole lot more interesting. In an excellent battle waged one day after Christmas, it was Unique Bella who took the measure of Paradise Woods in one of the best editions of Santa Anita's Grade 1 La Brea Stakes in recent memory. The winning margin was charted as 3/4 of a length, but both fillies ran huge. The winner had a wide trip and had to run down pure class, while the runner-up was in between horses and part of a testing pace from the outset. Both fillies are extremely talented, and both could kill with their good looks. Neither had 2017 work out exactly as planned, but this was the perfect way to end the season. It sets up a budding rivalry which could make the division as exciting as any in Southern California next year. On this day, the gray filly got the big prize, but Paradise Woods has certainly demonstrated what kind of filly she is in her last two starts, which also includes a third in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. As for the winner, there's still no telling just how good she could be. ZATT's Star of the Week, is ... Unique Bella!

Well, the second edition of the San Antonio Stakes in 2017 was certainly a strangely run race. Take nothing away from the winner, 
Giant Expectations, who took every advantage of a surprisingly slow early pace, and powered home an easy winner, but what of the overwhelming favorite, Collected? I have never held the consistent son of City Zip as highly as some in the division, but his race on Tuesday was bizarre. Was it a bad ride by Mike Smith, or was it a case of experimenting with this race which was treated as strictly a prep for the Pegasus World Cup? I believe the latter was a big part of his being last early, which clearly effected his chance to win the race. Better beware, or a black-eye for the sport?

In the biggest race of the weekend, also at Santa Anita, an extremely deserving filly finally tallied the first Grade 1 win of her career. Very good on dirt, and even better on turf,
Daddys Lil Darling had to travel to Southern California for Saturday's $300,000 American Oaks, but that's just more of the same for the versatile daughter of Scat Daddy. She's raced all over the United States, and remember, she had made the trip across the pond several months ago for the Epsom Oaks, only to be a late scratch after running off while reacting to the inclement weather. She had also been second in three Grade 1 races earlier this year; the Ashland Stakes, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup in October. Two days before the new year, Daddys Lil Darling finally had her day. Making a strong run under Mike Smith, she was able to put away the classy New Money Honey, before repelling what looked to be a winning late run from Madam Dancealot. It was a determined victory for a filly determined to be a Grade 1 winner.

While Scat Daddy continues to shine on as a sire after his passing, the young Lane's End stallion 
Quality Road is quickly making a name for himself. Very talented but quirky as a runner, the 11-year-old recently had a huge Breeders' Cup through the performances of his daughters, Abel Tasman and Caledonia Road. On that same weekend, his lightly raced City of Light flashed his early speed only to falter late in a strong allowance event. Undeterred, his connections tested the waters of the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes on Tuesday and were rewarded in kind. Sent off at 7-1 in an intriguing field, he soon took command of the race through fast fractions, and was very strong down the lane to win in decisive fashion. Both sire, Quality Road, and his speedy son, City of Light appear poised for an even bigger 2018.

Santa Anita was the eye of the racing storm this past week, but I would be remiss if I failed to mention the win by Valadorna in Tuesday’s $50,000 Tiffany Lass Stakes at Fair Grounds. Much like Unique Bella and Paradise Woods, the path for the 
Stonestreet filly was not without bumps in 2017. The 3-year-old daughter of Curlin looked to be a major player in the division at the start of the season, but things did not go as planned, and she was on the sidelines for much of the season. Now three races into her return after a layoff, the runner-up in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies appears to be rounding into form. Her first career stakes win was decisive, and with each passing race she looks more like the filly I thought she could become. Obviously, this race lacked the class of graded events of the future, but it's nice to see her back with a second chance at becoming a good one.

On a personal note,
 I was thrilled to participate in our first annual Kentucky Derby draft with many of my best friends. Initiated by my HorseCenter partner and all-around good guy, Matt Shifman, six horse racing buddies each selected five Derby hopefuls this week, with a two-horse supplemental draft coming a bit later. With 30 horses selected, each of us has a strong hand. As for me, I'm happy with my squad of: Bolt d'Oro, Montauk, Untamed Domain, Sporting Chance and Instilled Regard. Good luck to all ... it should be fun!

Finally, I believe most involved in American racing had strong feelings when the sad news of the passing of Jack Van Berg was learned, and I am no different. Alysheba was one of the most popular horses of his era, and certainly Van Berg's best horse, but it was another one of his stars that prompted me to become a big fan of the Hall of Fame trainer. Gate Dancer could not have been an easy horse to train. He clearly had a mind of his own, but Van Berg was able to get the most out the hooded horse with a fragile psyche, including a Preakness win and two narrow losses in the Breeders' Cup Classic. 
A gentle man in a hard shell, Van Berg was a legend in his native state of Nebraska. I only made it out to Ak-Sar-Ben one time before its closure, but more than any other thing in that visit, I remember the homage paid to the state's greatest trainer throughout the walls of the grandstand. Jack Van Berg was 81 ... May he Rest in Peace. 


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Meet Brian Zipse

Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Taken to the races at a very young age, he has been lucky enough to see all the greats in person from Secretariat, Forego, and Ruffian through Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, American Pharoah and Justify. Before coming to the Nation, Brian displayed his love for the sport through the development of his horse racing website, which quickly became one of the most popular blogs in the game. His new racing partnership venture, Derby Day Racing, invites more fans to experience the thrill of racehorse ownership.

The Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, Brian authored a daily column as Zipse at the Track, created the popular racing show, HorseCenter and added his editorial flare to the overall content of the website. Now a Senior Writer for HRN, Brian continues to contribute his thoughts on racing, as well as hosting HorseCenter. A big supporter of thoroughbred aftercare, he serves as the President of The Exceller Fund.

Brian's work has also been published on several leading industry sites. He has consulted for leading contest site Derby Wars, is both a Hall of Fame and NTRA poll voter, and is a Vox Populi committee member. 

A horse owner and graduate of DePaul University, Brian lives just outside of Louisville with his wife Candice and daughter Kendra.

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