Champion Unique Bella has been installed the overwhelming 2-5 program favorite for the $700,000, Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap for older fillies and mares Friday at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. She will be the 21st champion to compete in the 54-year history of race either during or following a championship campaign.
Probable post time for the 1 1/16-mile Apple Blossom is 5:38 p.m. CDT and it goes as the ninth of 10 races. Doors open Friday at 11 a.m., with first post 1:30 p.m.
Owned by Don Alberto Stable and trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, Unique Bella earned an Eclipse Award as the country's champion female sprinter last year after winning 5 of 6 starts. The 4-year-old gray daughter of Tapit will be racing for the first time outside California and possibly for the first time over an off track Friday since there is a 95 percent chance of heavy thunderstorms at post time, according to weather.com.
“Well, everybody has to deal with it,” Hollendorfer said. “If the weather's bad, then we'll try to deal with it.”
Unique Bella is coming off a front-running nine-length victory in the $200,000 Santa Maria Handicap (G2) Feb. 10 at Santa Anita. A minor illness and wet weather forced her to miss a scheduled start in the $400,000 Santa Margarita (G1) March 17 at Santa Anita.
“Actually, this was in the mix, anyway,” Hollendorfer said, referring to the Apple Blossom. “It didn't hurt to skip that race.”
The projected seven-horse Apple Blossom field from the rail out: Tiger Moth, Fernando De La Cruz to ride, 117 pounds, 12-1 on the morning line; Unbridled Mo, Ricardo Santana Jr., 116, 5-1; Fuhriously Kissed, C.J. McMahon, 113, 30-1; Beach Flower, Ramon Vazquez, 112, 30-1; Unique Bella, Mike Smith, 123, 2-5; Streamline, Gary Stevens, 116, 10-1; and Farrell, Channing Hill, 117, 6-1.
Unique Bella has been favored in all but one of her nine career starts and has seven victories overall, including six in graded stakes events.
Hollendorfer has had a Midas touch with fillies at Oaklawn, sending out Lite Light and future champion Blind Luck to win the Fantasy in 1991 and 2010, respectively, Hystericalady to win the Azeri in 2008 and It Tiz Well to win the Honeybee last year.
“What's happened in the past doesn't count,” Hollendorfer said.
Unbridled Mo will be making her Oaklawn debut for trainer Todd Pletcher and exits a fourth-place finish in the $200,000 Royal Delta Stakes (G3) Feb. 19 at Gulfstream Park.
Royal Delta winner Martini Glass returned to win the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) March 17, the final major local prep for the Apple Blossom.
Multiple stakes winner Farrell finished third in the Azeri, but the speedy daughter of Malibu Moon has struggled in the past over off tracks.
Streamline finished second in the 2016 Apple Blossom and third in last year's running for trainer Brian Williamson. She finished a dull eighth in the Azeri after running no worse than third in the previous 11 two-turn stakes races for older fillies and mares at Oaklawn. Streamline won three of those races.
“She's doing good and we're going to take a shot,” trainer Brian Williamson said. “We're home cooking, so we've got that going for us, hopefully. That other filly can be a little bit of a handful, Unique Bella, so we'll see.”
Tiger Moth finished fourth in the 2017 Apple Blossom and fourth in last month's Azeri for high-percentage trainer Brad Cox.
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