It couldn't touch last year's running of the Breeders' Cup Distaff in either excitement or sentimentality, but that didn't matter to the connections of Forever Unbridled, who won only the second race she's ever run west of Houston.
The first race was last year when she finished third in the Distaff to Beholder and Songbird at Santa Anita. Those two have been retired, so it only made sense this 5-year-old mare would win the $2-million race.
The sentimental choice, Stellar Wind, previously undefeated at Del Mar and running her last race, finished last for the first time in her 16-race career in the 1 1/16-mile race.
Forever Unbridled ran her typical race, sitting near the back of the eight-horse field until midway in the far turn. Then she turned on the jets, running around and through horses, and poking her head in front at the top of the stretch. Then she just kept the momentum going and held off Abel Tasman to win by a half-a-length. Paradise Woods was third and the favorite, Elate, was fourth.
It would have been impossible to top top last year's Distaff when undefeated Songbird and retiring Beholder hooked up in a stretch duel for the ages. The winning margin was a nose but looked closer.
Trainer Dallas Stewart was elated at what Forever Unbridled brought to Del Mar.
"I'm just blessed," Stewart said. "She's such a great filly. A championship was on the line and she's three for three [for the year]. … She's had that spacing [being raced lightly] and she's been very successful with that. Last year she had an injury and we gave her plenty of time. [Owner] Chuck [Fipke] was right about putting her back in training. He didn't have to. He could have just retired her already as a Grade 1 winner. He opted to bring her back and the injury wasn't bad and she was never sore. … She's the best I've trained."
It was Stewart's second Breeders' Cup win in 14 starts. He last won with Unbridled Elaine in the 2001 Distaff.
Forever Unbridled paid $9.40 to win, $5.00 to place and $3.40 to show.
Stewart, at the urging of owner Fipke, made a jockey change in this race, taking off Joel Rosario and replacing him with John Velazquez. It proved to be a smart move.
"I'm proud of Johnny [Velazquez] and how he rode her," Stewart said. "Joel [Rosario] is a great rider and those are two great jockeys, but I'm focused on the horse."
Rosario had ridden her seven times, including the last six races, winning four. Velazquez had ridden her twice, both wins.
Velazquez did have the strategy down, even if it went slightly amiss.
"The whole key was I wanted to save ground on the first turn and I was able to do that," Velazquez said. "I got her in a comfortable position where I thought she was going well. At the three-eighths pole I followed Jose Ortiz's horse [Elate] and all of a sudden she stopped and I had to go a little sooner than I wanted. I got to the lead a little too soon for me, but, I mean, it was perfect."
Abel Tasman was the best finisher Friday for trainer Bob Baffert, who has four horses in Saturday's main event — the Classic. Mor Spirit, the favorite in the Mile, and Cupid finished eighth and 10th. The Mile was won by Battle Of Midway, a Santa Anita-based horse for Jerry Hollendorfer.
"She just got beat by a really good filly," Baffert said of Abel Tasman. "Dallas Stewart had her ready and in the paddock [she] looked like the horse to beat. … That was a tough race. The Distaff was one of the toughest races on the card. [Abel Tasman] really ran her heart out and just came up second. Sometimes second is good."
Abel Tasman jockey Mike Smith echoed the respect for Forever Unbridled.
"The winner has a quicker turn of foot and got away from me," Smith said. "I was coming at them late, but it was just too late. [Abel Tasman] ran amazing. Can't take anything away from the winner."
As for Stellar Wind, jockey Victor Espinoza had no excuses for the mare who closes her career with 10 wins in 16 lifetime starts.
"We were in a good spot, but, today just wasn't her day," Espinoza said.
It was also tough for trainer John Sadler, who is now 0 for 41 in Breeders' Cup races.
Stellar Wind will leave the barn Sunday to go a sale in Kentucky. Owners Kosta and Pete Hronis, who do some breeding, did not feel they had the quality of stallions that Stellar Wind should be bred to.
"She deserves to be with the best," Kosta Hronis said.
Forever Unbridled will return to racing next year as a 6-year-old, according to Fipke.
First there is the rich Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in January.
"We're definitely going to be considering it," Fipke said. "That would be the goal. But we'll look at all the buyers and who is also in the race. … Now she's won the Distaff. I don't know how she'll stack up against the colts."
If she does race in Florida, it probably will be against some of the horses running Saturday in the Classic. And that should be something to watch.