Talk about a battle. Monomoy Girl, unbeaten in her 2020 season that followed a complete absence from the scene in 2019, takes on Swiss Skydiver, who left the 3-year-old filly division in tatters before upending the Kentucky Derby winner in the Preakness, in Saturday’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
If that’s not enough – and it really should be – toss in Grade 1 winners Ce Ce, Dunbar Road, Valiance and Ollie’s Candy, along with Grade 2 winners Harvest Moon, Horologist and Point Of Honor. That’s nine of the 10 and the tenth, Lady Kate, could factor on her day.
Road Show. Swiss Skydiver makes Saratoga her seventh stop this season. Written for the Aug. 15 Saratoga Special by Tom Law.
The streetlights continued to glow orange along Fifth Avenue a little more than a half-hour before sunrise Thursday when Swiss Skydiver made the short walk from the Oklahoma Annex to the main Oklahoma Training Track grounds.
The 3-year-old daughter of Daredevil, in town from Kentucky for a run in today’s Grade 1 Alabama Stakes, lowered her head as Mike Laronde let her lope along while trainer Ken McPeek and his assistant Britt Stoddard hopped in his SUV to drive to the main track to watch the filly train. Swiss Skydiver, even-money against six others in a deep renewal of the Alabama, meandered her way along the horse path on the turn of the Oklahoma through Horse Haven, across Union Avenue and into the picnic area before meeting McPeek and Stoddard in the paddock.
“We just let her walk free over there and into the paddock,” McPeek said. “This will be her second day on the main track. She pretty much adapts to wherever you take her. (Wednesday) was real hot and humid and she got a little warm on the end of her gallop. Today it’s cooler, perfect. You wish every morning was like this.”
Swiss Skydiver arrived in Saratoga a little more than a week ago, flying from Louisville for her first start in a Grade 1 and in her first try at the Alabama’s 10 furlongs.
Traveling is nothing new for Peter Callahan’s filly though. She’s run eight times at seven tracks, including Tampa Bay Downs, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita Park and Keeneland this year alone. Swiss Skydiver won three times in her six starts, blowout victories in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks, Grade 3 Fantasy at Oaklawn and Grade 2 Santa Anita Oaks.
She’d probably be considered the leader in the 3-year-old filly division if not for Gamine, a two-time Grade 1 winner.
“She can win this race,” McPeek said. “I think you’ve got to make a pretty good claim that she’s one of the top candidates for champion 3-year-old filly. If she wins this then it knocks out the Grade 1. Then she’s got to run against Gamine at some point. Or maybe she doesn’t, who knows?”
Swiss Skydiver went about her business while McPeek pitched her credentials, which weren’t diminished by her runner-up to probable Kentucky Derby second choice Art Collector in the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass in her most recent start July 11 at Keeneland.
Swiss Skydiver took a couple turns around the half-dark paddock, the only audible sounds a few doves cooing in the distance somewhere near Siro’s and the hum of the always-on television monitors scattered throughout the grounds. After heading down the chute and over the rubber pavers onto the main track Swiss Skydiver walked to the quarter-pole, jogged to the eighth and broke off on her gallop. She and Laronde galloped back around, joined by the other early sets and some breezers down on the fence before pulling up on the backstretch and jogging home.
McPeek caught her on his cell phone camera galloping past the second time, framed perfectly in the red sky coming to light on a Chamber-of-Commerce morning in the Covid-19 era when fans can’t come to see the horses, the workouts or the races.
“Swiss Skydiver down on the inside,” McPeek said while the filly galloped past on a tight hold and blowing just a bit.
McPeek, who won the 2018 Alabama with Eskimo Kisses over a field that included She’s A Julie and Midnight Bisou, liked what he saw from his stable star.
“Looks like she could go around again?” McPeek said to Laronde, who nodded in approval. “Just turn right here, make a couple loops in the paddock then we’ll take her home.”
After walking back the same way she came, Swiss Skydiver took a few turns in front of McPeek’s shedrow, occupied by only about half-dozen runners and down significantly in numbers compared to most years.
Swiss Skydiver and her stablemate Envoutante, third in the Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland behind Speech and Venetian Harbor on the same card as the Blue Grass, will make the walk to the holding barn and then the paddock for today’s 140th edition of the Alabama. One of Saratoga’s most prestigious events, the $500,000 Alabama also figures to be a steppingstone to the Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks for both fillies.
McPeek considered the Kentucky Derby for Swiss Skydiver after her 4-length win over Speech in the Santa Anita Oaks then backed off that idea publicly when she finished second in the Blue Grass. She still ranks 12th on the list of Derby contenders by points but a rematch against Art Collector and expected favorite Tiz The Law doesn’t appear in the cards.
The Alabama wasn’t the initial target after the Blue Grass but Swiss Skydiver breezed well back home at Churchill and McPeek shipped her north. She breezed 5 furlongs on the Oklahoma last Saturday in 1:01.49.
“Actually I was going to skip it at one point but it’s such a great race and she’s been steady as she goes,” McPeek said. “She’s an exceptionally sturdy filly. And the Alabama, a lot of really good fillies have won it.”
McPeek did initially hope for a bit more time between the 10-furlong Alabama and the 9-furlong Kentucky Oaks – a stretch of just 20 days – but isn’t overly concerned.
“I politicked months ago for them to write it on the 8th of August,” he said. “I even called (Martin) Panza in the racing office and said that timing would be better. They didn’t want to overlap the Travers. The only bad thing is you have to come back in three weeks. How many horses have come back in three weeks and run fine? You hear everybody say things like ‘ooooh, they’re running back quick’ and all that. It’s ridiculous.”
Swiss Skydiver made her opposition look close to that in her three wins before the Blue Grass, winning by a combined 9 3/4 lengths. She won those races after finishing third in her first start around two turns in the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds, which followed a very wide fifth – beaten just three-quarters of a length – in the 7-furlong Gasparilla Stakes at Tampa.
Swiss Skydiver’s first two starts came around one turn at Churchill, a win going 7 furlongs in her debut Nov. 16 and a second by a half-length behind Bayerness on a sloppy track going 1 mile 14 days later. Tyler Gaffalione rode her in those first two starts at Churchill and rides again today.
“I tried to get her to two turns … We wanted it,” McPeek said. “At first we tried to find a never-won-two at a mile and a sixteenth but couldn’t get the race to go. They wrote it at Keeneland, couldn’t get it to go. Even in her maiden race I wanted to run her a mile. It seemed like the timing was wrong.
“Then you run into the problem in Florida, where you either run in the Davona Dale, there are no two-turn 3-year-old filly races, or nowhere. There’s one at Tampa called the Suncoast. I had a filly Motu, she’s a good filly in her own right, for that one (she finished third). To keep them from having to run against each other I ran her in the Gasparilla. After that we were like let’s get her two turns and do her thing.”
Germonimo. Kentucky Oaks-bound Swiss Skydiver romps to signature score in Grade 1. Written for Aug. 19 Saratoga Special by Tom Law.
Ken McPeek leaned on the white railing near the winner’s circle at Saratoga Race Course while Swiss Skydiver put on another show. The trainer kissed his wife Sherri when the job was done, walked away from the spot to meet owner Peter Callahan before going to see the filly whose resume grows by the month.
“She’s unreal. Unreal,” McPeek said in a somewhat soft tone, eyes welling up after Swiss Skydiver put a very real hurt on another field of 3-year-old fillies in the $500,000 Alabama Stakes Saturday.
McPeek watched the 10 furlongs of the 140th Alabama leaning on a makeshift railing made from white PVC pipe outside the Curlin Café – oh the irony, considering he picked out the future Hall of Famer as a yearling back in 2005 – and moved about as much as jockey Tyler Gaffalione did aboard the daughter of Daredevil. Swiss Skydiver won the Alabama by 3 1/2 lengths in one of those ways that seemed like it could have been 10 if she wasn’t wrapped up the last 100 yards for another prize down the road.
McPeek, who counts a Belmont, Travers and Alabama among his 17 prior Grade 1 victories, admitted to being a bit emotional over this one and also in awe.
“Whew. I probably get more nervous as an even-money. When you’re 10-1 you have no pressure,” he said on the way for champagne and air conditioning in the 1863 Club. “She just does everything so easy. I mean you just think, ‘where’s the bottom on her?’ There doesn’t seem to be one. She’s so good. A blind man could train her to be honest with you.”
Swiss Skydiver made it look easy winning the Alabama, just like she did in open-length victories in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks, Grade 3 Fantasy and Grade 2 Santa Anita Oaks before her connections aimed high and nearly hit the target when second against males in the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass.
She earned an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff with the Alabama win through the “Win and You’re In” series but that’s further down the road. A potential showdown with two-time Grade 1 winner Gamine in the Kentucky Oaks, 20 days after the Alabama, comes first. But McPeek is thinking ahead after that spot, too.
“She just breathes different air and it’s one of those things you just never know when you get a horse like that,” he said. “Everything we’ve asked her to do she just says, ‘ok, no problem.’
“We were trying to think a few steps ahead when we ran in the Blue Grass . . . We got points if we need them for the Preakness by running in the Blue Grass. We learned how she fit against colts. Let’s say if she could win the Oaks, yeah, if she’s in good order I think the Preakness would be a great race to win with a filly.”
Victories like the Alabama, and the other three graded stakes this year, give McPeek and Callahan confidence to aim high.
Two days before the Alabama and after she trained on the main track and walked through the paddock a second time just before sunrise, Swiss Skydiver walked back through the empty picnic area and took in the scene.
Like every morning this meet amidst the pandemic, no early arrivers were there to snag picnic tables for races later that day and barely a sound could be heard from the grandstand or racetrack while training picked up.
“Walking back after the paddock she was looking at all the TVs that were on, checking them out,” exercise rider Mike Laronde said after he and Swiss Skydiver made it back to McPeek’s barn in the Oklahoma Annex.
Laronde gave the chestnut filly a few turns on the walking ring that surrounds McPeek’s small office building and a few light pats on her neck. Before dismounting and hopping on another runner to train on the Oklahoma, Laronde listened to McPeek’s plan for the next day – “we’ll do the same thing at the same time.”
“She must think it’s pictures or something, all the TVs going,” Laronde said. “Do you like the camera momma?”
Swiss Skydiver broke well from post five in the Alabama and settled into a stalking spot just behind Coaching Club American Oaks runner-up Crystal Ball past the finish line and the clicking cameras from the handful of photographers along the outside rail not far from the McPeeks.
Gaffalione wasn’t in any hurry around the clubhouse turn while Javier Castellano and Crystal Ball set the pace, clicking past the quarter in :23.55 and half in :47.91.
McPeek’s only instruction to Gaffalione, who had ridden Swiss Skydiver in her first two starts as a 2-year-old and subbing for her expected Oaks jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., was to let the filly run her opening half in :48.
“I thought the race at Keeneland we went a little quick, I think 46 and 2 the first half and it took a little steam out of her and she couldn’t hold off Art Collector,” McPeek said. “He spotted it. They went 47 and 4 and he was 1 length off the pace. That’s was an ‘atta boy,’ he did a great job.”
Gaffalione looked like he had Crystal Ball whenever he wanted up the backstretch and into the far turn after 6 furlongs in 1:12.27, so much so that he said he “was slowing her down around the turn just to stay with that filly.”
“I didn’t want to take too much away from her,” he said. “I just let her out a notch and she did the rest on her own.”
Swiss Skydiver opened up by the time the field passed the quarter pole and the mile in 1:36.80 and the only real question was who would gain the Grade 1 placings. She led by 3 lengths at the eight pole and without any serious threat from the late-running Harvey’s Lil Goil and Bonny South, Gaffalione glanced at the infield monitor and hand rode the filly to the wire without ever turning up his whip.
“I felt comfortable the whole way around there,” said Gaffalione, who won his first Alabama and fourth Grade 1 of 2020. “She was just carrying me. She had her mind on business and she knew exactly what she wanted to do. She put in a big performance. Hopefully we didn’t take too much out of her and she’ll be good to go for the Oaks.”
McPeek sent Swiss Skydiver back to his main base at Churchill Downs Monday, arranging for members of his team to van her back after a southbound flight was canceled for out-of-towners running over the Alabama Weekend.
He plans to train Swiss Skydiver in Louisville before the 9-furlong Oaks, rescheduled from its original May 1 date due to the coronavirus pandemic. She’ll gallop up to the race with one breeze likely about a week out, McPeek said.
Swiss Skydiver could face a full field of 14 in the $1.25 million Oaks, but the showdown with Bob Baffert’s Acorn and Test winner Gamine figures to dominate the prerace buzz.
“It’s exciting; it’s going to get a lot of attention,” McPeek said. “We don’t have any fear of her. My filly might even have an advantage because Churchill is our base and she’s been two turns repeatedly and hasn’t had any trouble doing that. Gamine hasn’t gone further than that. Maybe that’s something Bob knows more than me. It’s going to be a great race.”