If Unique Bella comes back with a flourish on Sunday in the L.A. Woman Stakes at Santa Anita, she will be poised to join an elite group of racing greats who blew off most of the season only to emerge at the top of the heap in a Breeders' Cup race at the end of the year.
For starters there is Da Hoss, the patron saint of comebacks, the star of a story forever told 'round the Breeders' Cup campfire. Da Hoss, a 6-year-old gelding, had not had a serious run since winning the 1996 Breeders' Cup Mile at Woodbine. Infirmities had kept him sequestered at the eastern Maryland farm of trainer Michael Dickinson, where Da Hoss was able to train when he was healthy and rest when he was not. He rested a lot.
It was now November of 1998 at Churchill Downs. Da Hoss had only recently returned to competition, winning a minor event at Colonial Downs. Dickinson was convinced his horse was fit, and he knew Da Hoss had retained his considerable class. Still, the idea of a horse winning a deeply competitive race like the Mile with only one race in two years bordered on preposterous.
When Da Hoss defeated the talented Hawksley Hill by a head, Dickinson was praised far and wide for pulling off the miracle. And though the trainer deflected credit to his horse, the media insisted on labeling him racing's "mad genius" for such an outlandish achievement.
"They've got it half-right," Dickinson would say with a laugh.
John Veitch's work getting Proud Truth ready to win the 1985 Breeders' Cup Classic was less a work of genius than a classic piece of old-school training, bringing a good horse back from a cannon bone fracture with fingers crossed that nothing would go amiss.
Proud Truth was good enough to win the Florida Derby in early '85 and later the Peter Pan, on May 26, during which he sustained the leg injury. Today he'd be done for the year, but Veitch had the colt back in August, backed off in September, and then used a sprint at Belmont in early October as a training tool to see where he was.
He was fine. Veitch put the finishing touch on Proud Truth one week before the Breeders' Cup Classic, running him in the nine-furlong Discovery Handicap on Oct. 26 at Aqueduct, where the Breeders' Cup would be run seven days later. He won the Discovery, then beat Gate Dancer by a head at the end of a Classic that also drew Turkoman, Vanlandingham, and Chief's Crown.
Ross Fenstermaker didn't bother with a prep race. Two and a half hours before the 1985 Classic was run, the trainer brought over his proven middle-distance star Precisionist to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint off a break in action of 132 days.
Precisionist was not out with an injury, but he certainly deserved the rest. Between the end of December 1984 and late June 1985, he had run eight times, winning major stakes at seven, eight, nine, and 10 furlongs along the way. Fenstermaker would insist that training his horse to win a six-furlong race first crack out of the box was not that big of a deal, no matter who he was running against.
But after he defeated a BC Sprint field that included Smile, Mt. Livermore, and Fighting Fit, it looked like a very big deal indeed. Eclipse Award voters agreed and made Precisionist their sprint champion.
Unique Bella developed a sore shin earlier this year after winning the Santa Ynez, Las Virgenes, and Santa Ysabel stakes at Santa Anita. The injury was far from career threatening, and may even have been career enhancing. There was always the impression that as robust as she looked, Unique Bella was running too hard and too fast for her own good. Now she has the look of a fully mature filly, ready for whatever the opposition can bring in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint on Nov. 4 at Del Mar, where she won a maiden race by nearly 11 lengths.
The L.A. Woman is a Grade 3, 6 1/2-furlong event named for a cut from a 1971 Doors album of the same name. Jim Morrison died in a Paris bathtub less than three months after its release.
Bill Spawr will be on the sidelines Sunday, watching Unique Bella's return with interest as he continues to train Great Lady M. Stakes winner Skye Diamonds for the Filly and Mare Sprint. Skye Diamonds had a work scheduled for Saturday as she continues a steady pattern toward the showdown.
"She was a little fuzzy when I got back," said Spawr, who returned to work from a 30-day suspension on Sept. 29, levied because of a post-race overage of an allowed medication in a urine sample taken from Skye Diamonds last spring.
"So we clipped her, and she's doing well," Spawr said. "She's been working at five-day intervals, easy works. I follow her back to the barn to see how she recovers, and she cools out right away, like she does when she gallops."
As for clocking the potential Breeders' Cup competition, Spawr isn't losing sleep.
"I'll leave that to John Lindo," Spawr said with a laugh, citing one of the partners in the Skye Diamond ownership. "I'll do my job and take care of the filly."