McPeek enjoys ride with Swiss Skydiver

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Kenny McPeek and Swiss Skydiver could have been at Charles Town, Timonium, Ellis Park, any track in the country about 7:30 the morning before the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. One man, one horse, a hose, a pocketful of mints, a fly sheet rolled up in front to avoid the spray – and water, lots of cold water.

The Friday scene made McPeek think of his early days with Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey.

“When I started out working for Shug, this was my number-one job,” McPeek said of hosing horses’ legs. “Phil Hauswald taught me. You’ve got to hit it just right, so it does both legs. See there? I was a professional at this. You aim it so it hits one leg and glances off and hits the other too. It works better if you cut the nozzle off the hose. I had a bucket (to sit on) then. At certain stages, my only job was hosing and holding for the blacksmith.”

McPeek, a winner of 1,736 races and known the world over for savvy yearling purchases, works at far more now but he still seizes the chance to hose a horse in front of the barn when he can. Especially a horse like Swiss Skydiver. Peter Callahan’s chestnut daughter of Daredevil brings wins in half her 10 starts and career earnings of $1,192,980 into Saturday’s Preakness Stakes. The $35,000 Keeneland September purchase leads the field with eight starts (at as many racetracks) this year and is the race’s 6-1 co-third choice behind Kentucky Derby winner Authentic and the streaking Art Collector.

“She’s a sweetheart,” McPeek said, unwrapping another mint for is star filly. “It’s nice. When I had 1995 Derby and Preakness starter Tejano Run I had a lot smaller outfit and I spent a lot of time with him. This reminds me of that. We taught him silly pet tricks and things. He was a really cool horse and you know these good ones are so few and far between you really need to relish it. She’s all class, easy to be around. She really makes our job easy.”

Swiss Skydiver won her debut last November, and closed 2019 with a second in allowance company. She showed up ready to work in 2020 and has run at Tampa Bay Downs, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita, Keeneland, Saratoga and Churchill Downs. After two losses, she won the Gulfstream Park Oaks in March, the Fantasy in May and the Santa Anita Oaks in June. She tried males in the Blue Grass in July, and was second to Art Collector, then dominated Saratoga’s Grade 1 Alabama in August and was second in the Kentucky Oaks last month.

All the while, she’s thrived – maintaining her weight, leaning into her work on the track and telling McPeek that a Preakness attempt isn’t such a high bar.

“She’s handled it fine, I think she likes the traveling and I haven’t seen her fatigued once all year,” he said. “She loves to run. She’s had a couple races that were pretty easy on her. She didn’t run hard in California and when she won the Alabama she just did that in a canter. The Blue Grass might have been the hardest race she ran. She was second that day and I think the fractions kind of wilted her a little bit. She might have gone a little quick. She ate up in an hour that night. Most fillies might not eat for three days after a race like that.

“She’s not a high-maintenance horse at all. She eats like a bear. She keeps a good appetite. It’s been a fun year with her.”

Swiss Skydiver galloped over Pimlico’s wet track Friday, dodging a track-crossing camera crew near the finish line and then spent her morning with her trainer – much like she did Thursday. Then it was a walk (with Twitter video and a stop at every doorway and corner) around the long shedrow of the stakes barn. Friday it was the hosing session, as much for something to do as anything therapeutic. Swiss Skydiver appreciated the water, the attention. When the mints ran out, she sighed and put up with the fussing, then went back to her stall.

 

Saturday, she tries to become the sixth filly to win the Preakness, following Flocarline (1903), Whimsical (1906), Rhine Maiden (1915), Nellie Morse (1924) and Rachel Alexandra (2009).

“There’s plenty of time to run against older fillies and mares,” McPeek said. “There’s only one window to run against straight threes. We looked at the numbers real close on the race. How would she fit against some of these? We felt that she definitely fit. It wasn’t like we were bringing a 30- or 40-1 shot. The other option was grass, which she would love and I eventually want to try her on it, but not yet.

“She’s going to have to run the race of her life, and some others might need to regress. I also think the extra distance is her thing. The race you saw in the Alabama, the mile-and-a-quarter is no problem. She’ll keep going. A mile-and-an-eighth, she’s run well at it, but I think she’s better going farther.”

Swiss Skydiver led all the way in the Santa Anita Oaks and the Gulfstream Park Oaks, and was up close in the Alabama. McPeek figures on something similar Saturday, though he won’t get locked into tactics with jockey Robby Albarado.

“I think she runs better at a 48-second first half-mile,” he said. “What you do after that is up to you. As long as the first half-mile doesn’t get overly aggressive for her, she gets in a nice rhythm and makes her run. If she can do that, she’ll be 1-2-3. I’m not going to press the pace or try to control it or try to get involved in it, I want Robby to be a good passenger that first half-mile, get in a nice rhythm and go from there.”