Trainer Kenny McPeek said it Friday, while hosing Swiss Skydiver’s legs and feeding her mints outside the Pimlico Race Course stakes barn. If his star filly could get her first half-mile in :48 (ish), no matter where she was in the field of 11, she could finish in the first three in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.
Saturday, she went out and did it.
Peter Callahan’s filly was fifth, 3 lengths behind the leaders’ first half in :47.65, then jumped on the bridle leaving the backside and took the lead after three-quarters in 1:11.24. She lived up to her sire Daredevil’s name from there, denying multiple challenges from Kentucky Derby winner Authentic over the final three-eighths to win by a neck. Longshot Jesus’ Team finished third, 9 3/4 lengths behind the runner-up. Swiss Skydiver covered 1 3/16 miles in 1:53.28, the second-fastest time in history behind Secretariat.
In the second-floor box area across from the finish line on a surreal day with no fans due to the coronavirus pandemic, McPeek pumped his fists, hugged his wife Sherri and let out a breathless, “Hah, hah, hahhhh, ha, man what a great ride.”
He wasn’t wrong. Jockey Robby Albarado, whose career has fallen from 200-win heights per year in the 2000s, delivered on a big stage but quickly passed credit to his filly.
“On the backside a couple horses started coming back to us,” he said. “She was in my hands doing it within herself and I had to make a conscious decision. Do I jump in there now and let it be a match race or do I sit back, wait and let things unfold? She’d been training so good and instilled so much confidence in me this week. Every day got better and better and better. She took me there within herself. We got to the three-eighths pole and she was determined to stay in front and win. It was all her, what a champion.”
McPeek didn’t necessarily tell Albarado to go after the leaders that soon, but set up his jockey for such a trip if it presented itself.
“We talked about her taking him there,” the trainer said. “I said, ‘If she takes you there, let her because that’s her.’ He’d been getting on her and feeling her out. Even in the Alabama she took her rider there. You don’t make her do anything. I told Robby, ‘if she takes you to the quarter pole and you haven’t cut her loose yet, you’ll win.’ ”
Albarado hadn’t really asked much, but was in front at the quarter pole and went to work. To the outside loomed Authentic, the Bob Baffert-trained Derby winner and sharp-all-week Preakness favorite. He and Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez took a swing, but Swiss Skydiver never let them past.
“Me and Johnny have had some great stretch battles,” Albarado said. “I’m still not over him beating me in the Belmont when I was on Curlin, but that felt good.”
Jockeys don’t seem to matter much to Swiss Skydiver, the sixth filly to win the Preakness in 145 runnings. She’s won for Tyler Gaffalione, Paco Lopez, Brian Hernandez Jr. and Mike Smith as well while starting in every month but April this year. Delays and travel restrictions for jockeys put Albarado in play for the Preakness as Gaffalione (who won last year’s Preakness with War Of Will) stayed at Keeneland.
“For somebody that hadn’t been getting many opportunities, and I don’t know why that is and I don’t really care but he’s always done a great job for me, he’s a big-game player,” McPeek said. “I didn’t have any concern that he could get it done, even if the way things have been going for him lately. It was a great ride.”
Albarado won 24 races last year, and had 21 victories so far this year, so appreciated McPeek’s faith.
“I’ve been in a slump the last couple years,” Albarado said. “People stop believing in you. I still love my job. I’ve been doing it for 30 years. I just needed an opportunity to get on a classy horse.”
Purchased by McPeek for $35,000 at the 2018 Keeneland September yearling sale, Swiss Skydiver added the Preakness to victories in the Grade 1 Alabama, Grade 2 Santa Anita Oaks, Grade 3 Fantasy and Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks this year. McPeek aimed for the Preakness, against males, because the race presented an opportunity to run against 3-year-old at a distance his filly favors.
“We had plenty of time to run against older horses and I just felt like the added sixteenth of a mile was going to be ideal for her,” he said. “Her best race I thought for me was in the Alabama where she went on and when she gets in a nice rhythm the distance isn’t a problem. I mean, you could have run her another half-mile and she would have kept going.”