In the finale of a Triple Crown season like we’ve never seen, Ken McPeek’s filly Swiss Skydiver turned in a performance like we’ve rarely seen. Darting through a hole at the end of the backstretch, earlier than might be customary but just in time to get advantageous position on the rail, jockey Robby Albarado guided Swiss Skydiver past Kentucky Derby winner Authentic and then held Bob Baffert’s colt off through a thrilling stretch battle to win the 145th Preakness Stakes by the slimmest of margins.
Her photo-finish victory made Swiss Skydiver the first filly since Rachel Alexandra in 2009 and just the sixth ever to win the Triple Crown’s second jewel, run last of the three this year after a round of COVID-19 postponements.
The stretch run was hold-your-breath close. Swiss Skydiver came into the stretch with the lead, and Authentic made repeated runs to take it, but in the end, wasn’t good enough.
“That’s a good filly,” said Baffert, who was denied a record eighth Preakness win. “He had every chance to get by her. He got beat. He just couldn’t get by her. She dug in. She’s tough.’
McPeek called it a “genius move” by Albarado.
“I had an opportunity, a split second, to take advantage of the rail because Johnny was sitting off the fence there,” Albarado said. “I made a conscious decision on the backside. ‘It’s give or take now. Do I make that move now or do I wait to see if they come back to me?’ She’s been doing extremely well. Kenny’s been doing a great job. I’ve been around her all week. I figure she knows where she’s at, she’s in her surroundings. I said let me try and make this Jerry Bailey move and win.”
Still, in the stretch, it was pure high-level horse racing drama.
“I was a little worried when they got to about the 16th pole, I thought it looked like Authentic got his head in front a little bit and then she fought right back,” McPeek said. “There’s no guarantees in this game and I’ve been, I have had some tough beats, second in the Derby, been second in a bunch of Breeders’ Cup races, third here in the Preakness years back, but I’m just thrilled she fought on.”
It was the first Preakness win for McPeek, the University of Kentucky alum who was disappointed she didn’t capture the Kentucky Oaks but was thrilled after his win at Pimlico, with a filly named after owner Peter Callahan’s granddaughter, when he saw a photo of her parachuting over the Swiss Alps.
You could tell, in fact, McPeek was still stinging a bit from not winning the Oaks. But winning the Preakness certainly helps that feeling.
“You know, I would like a do-over in that Oaks,” McPeek said. “I thought she could have won that day. But anyway, just incredible. Horses tell you they’re doing good. She always tells us she’s doing good. I know there were those naysayers, Oh, why would you do that? That’s worse thing you can do. She is just a real bull. She loves what she does every day. She likes to go to work. She wants to go out early because she doesn’t want to wait to go out. And Robby and I have had a great week here this week. We basically flew up together. We had breakfast, lunch, dinner. I think we were just, we were rowing in the same direction and the mojo was good and it happened.”
Albarado got the late call to ride Swiss Skydiver after her regular rider, Tyler Gaffalione, took another mount, unsure of whether the filly would run at Pimlico. McPeek turned to Mike Smith, but couldn’t get him either, which left the call going to Albarado.
“I’m just really proud of Robby,” McPeek said. “We had to call him into the game at the last minute, and he really did a great job. . . . Robby was working horses for us at Keeneland and I know he — look, we all go through stages in our career where we struggle. And we all, to me, the key is better horses. And so he’s been out breezing horses. And Mike says, Hey, Robby on this one, Robby on that one, Robby likes this is one, Robby’s calling me telling me what’s going on. So he was part of the team already. And I know that people weren’t giving him the opportunities that they had previously. And actually I would like to be able to keep him more. He’s going to get more opportunities again. I can tell you that right now. But he’s ridden for me in the past. He’s always done a good job, won the Alcibiades for me years back. We’ve won a lot of graded stakes together, for that matter. And it’s a game you got to have the stock. And you know what, you give him the stock he gets it done.”
For Swiss Skydiver, it was her sixth victory in 11 races, at seven different tracks. Jesus’ Team finished third, with second-choice Art Collector fourth.
Albarado joked afterward that he thought Authentic was “eying” Swiss Skydiver at the barn all week.
“Obviously he was a Derby champ, so you got to give him respect. But I felt, on the filly, really I was really late in the stretch before I even uncocked my stick and I maybe hit her once lightly on her left hand, but she’s, all indications was that she was determined to stay in front and I let him pass her,” Albarado said. “So we got a bunch of inside jokes at the barn this week, I told them how Authentic kept staring at her, uh-oh, every time she walked by. He got a good look at her today.”
And now, she has a major victory against the boys, and puts her name into the Horse of the Year conversation. McPeek couldn’t say which Breeders’ Cup race she will try next, the Distaff or Older Fillies and Mares.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “We can look at both races, I suppose. We got in for the Distaff after the Alabama, but I would say right now we would probably lean towards the older fillies and mares. But nothing set in stone and we don’t have to make a decision today, I don’t think.”
The Preakness was run without fans, and only owners, trainers and essential personnel in attendance. It also was run without the traditional playing of “Maryland, My Maryland,” which was omitted because of its Civil War ties.
But it wasn’t run without drama — and for a Triple Crown season like no other, that was a welcome gift.