by SCOTT SHAPIRO

The Grade 1 La Brea is always a huge race in Southern California, but the Opening Day co-feature came up incredibly strong this year given the presence of multiple graded stakes winner Unique Bella and two-time Grade 1 queen Paradise Woods.

With Paradise Woods listed as the 8-5-morning line favorite and the always well backed Unique Bella at 9-5, it is all but certain these two highly regarded three-year-old fillies will take the bulk of the action at the windows in advance of Tuesday’s throw down. The question as a horseplayer becomes which of the two logical contenders do you prefer in this spot and can any of the other fillies spring the upset or at least “beef up” the exotic wagers. 

#3 Unique Bella has always wowed those watching her in the mornings for Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer. For the most part her display of speed and class in the A.M. has translated to the afternoons, but that was not the case during her biggest test in early November.

Jockey Mike Smith sent the Don Alberto Stable filly to the lead in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint nearly two months ago and set brisk early fractions (21.84/44.35) before fading badly late. She went off the even-money favorite, but could do no better than seventh. Did Unique Bella throw in a “clunker” at an inopportune time or is she just a filly that has beaten up on weaker competition until this point?

The daughter of Tapit has fired off five drills at Santa Anita dating back to November 19 and appears set for a big effort in her last chance for a Grade 1 victory this year. I just wonder what the game plan will be for Smith and the “Dorf.” I doubt that the two Hall of Famers will opt to have Unique Bella on the lead after the disappointing result in the Breeders’ Cup, but can she relax along the inside just a few lengths off the leaders?

I have a lot of respect for the Pennsylvania-bred, but there are still too many questions for me to endorse her at a relatively short price.

#7 Paradise Woods makes her first start since a stalking third in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff on November 3. The daughter of Union Rags showed the ability to relax just off the early pace despite moderate early fractions set by long shot Champagne Room, but did not have enough late to compete to the wire with eventual winner Forever Unbridled.

Shortly after the running of the 2017 Distaff I was a bit perplexed by jockey Flavian Prat’s decision to not send Paradise Woods to her normal spot on the engine, but it should do her well on Tuesday as she turns back from route to sprint. Prat is a “wizard” at getting runners to relax during the early stages of races. If he can find a comfortable spot a few lengths off the early leaders in the La Brea it should be her race to lose when they turn for home. 

The outside draw is quite favorable for Paradise Woods and she has shown an affinity for the racetrack having won 3 of her 4 career starts, including an 11 ¾-length romp in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks in April and a 5 ¼-length score in the Grade 1 Zenyatta in September.

Paradise Woods enters the La Brea off four strong works at Santa Anita dating back to the end of November and should be a tough customer on Tuesday. I love her chances for Hall of Famer Richard Mandella.

Unique Bella and Paradise Woods may draw all the attention of the public and most of it from gamblers, but there are other talented three-year-old fillies entered as well looking to spring the upset.

California-bred #1 Miss Sunset has won three straight and four of five for trainer Jeff Bonde, including a victory versus open company in the Grade 2 Raven Run at Keeneland. I have loved watching this daughter of Into Mischief improve in 2017, but I am not a fond of the rail draw. As the 5-1 third choice she appears vulnerable on Tuesday.

#2 Marley’s Freedom is stepping way up in class after an easy win against optional claiming foes at the Bing Crosby Del Mar meeting. If they go too fast early perhaps she can pick up the pieces at a big price.

#4 Mopotism cuts back to one-turn for the first time since her second career start last November. She is too slow to win the La Brea, but she should appreciate the decrease in distance. At 12-1 on the line she is a must use underneath for trainer Doug O’Neill.

It is very difficult to toss 7-time La Brea winner Bob Baffert, but #5 Faypien is a filly I think is a cut below the top couple in here. I will let her beat me. 

#6 Just A Little Hope makes her first start in over two months for trainer Dan Hendricks. The daughter of Flatter gets blinkers for the initial time after chasing a lone speed winner in Cuyathy in mid-October. I have always liked this filly and give her an outside shot to pick up a minor share in her first try versus stakes competition.

#8 Princess Karen draws outside and beat Unique Bella home in the Filly & Mare Sprint, but will need to continue to improve to be a factor in the lane on Tuesday. Avoiding a speed duel is a must for this daughter of Stay Thirsty if she wants to stick around for a share.

Here is how I will wager on the Grade 1 La Brea:

Race 7

$10 Exacta Wheel: 7 with 4+6+8 = $30

$5 Exacta: 7-2 = $5

$1 Trifecta Wheel: 7 with 2+4+6+8 with 2+4+6+8 = $12

$2 Trifecta Wheel: 7 with 4 with ALL = $12

$2 Trifecta Wheel: 7 with ALL with 4 = $12

Total Budget = $71