Kenny McPeek held the hose in one hand, the shank in the other. Water splished and splashed this way and that. As her trainer talked and unwrapped mint after mint, Swiss Skydiver just stood there, like a lead pony, somebody’s foxhunter, maybe a veteran turf horse trying to make one more start before the autumn weather went the wrong way.
“She likes this,” McPeek said of the hosing, the mints, the attention. Indeed, Swiss Skydiver would have probably stood there all day.
Such is the life of a Grade 1-winning filly a day before taking on males in the Preakness Stakes-G1 at Pimlico Race Course. Moved to Oct. 3 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the race’s 145th running lured 11 entrants led by Kentucky Derby-G1 winner Authentic, unbeaten-this-year Art Collector, Derby third Mr. Big News and Derby paddock scratch Thousand Words. Swiss Skydiver, whose busy 2020 included a win in Saratoga’s Alabama Stakes-G1 and three other graded stakes against her gender plus a second behind Art Collector against males in the Blue Grass-G2, provided the only other major storyline. Despite watching his filly finish second in the Kentucky Oaks-G1 the day before the Derby, McPeek aimed higher.
“There’s plenty of time to run against older fillies and mares,” he said, keeping the hose running and the mints coming. “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.”
Swiss Skydiver had won a Grade 1 against fillies, so the Grade 2 Black Eyed-Susan really didn’t make much sense – especially considering the $1 million Preakness purse (compared to $250,000) and McPeek’s belief in his filly’s fondness for added distance. While shorter than the 11⁄4 miles of the Alabama and Derby, the 13⁄16-mile Preakness provided the right test at the right time under the right circumstances.
“She’s going to have to run the race of her life, and some others might need to regress,” McPeek said. “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.”
The next day, she went out and proved him right – holding off Authentic by a neck in the second-fastest Preakness in history. Swiss Skydiver covered the distance in 1:53.28, behind only Secretariat’s 1:53 in 1973, after simply refusing to get passed in the stretch. She is the sixth filly to win the Preakness and first since Rachel Alexandra in 2009. Longshot Jesus’ Team wound up third, 93⁄4 lengths behind the top two, as Art Collector settled for fourth and Thousand Words faded to eighth.
Sent off at nearly 12-1, Swiss Skydiver broke sharply from post four and cleared the horses to her inside (Art Collector, Mr. Big News and Excession). Jockey Robby Albarado looked to his right early and let Thousand Words assume command. Authentic followed his Bob Baffert-trained stablemate as Swiss Skydiver was fifth on the rail and behind the top two, Pneumatic and Art Collector, as the field passed the finish line the first time.
After an opening quarter-mile in :24.48, the leaders accelerated on the backside and got the half in :47.65 in pretty much the same order. In the three path, Authentic took a short lead as Albarado moved around Thousand Words and gave his filly a little rein coming to the three-eighths pole. Heels and hands down, the jockey hadn’t asked for much but felt an immediate response as he went from stalking to dictating.
“On the backside a couple horses started coming back to us,” said Albarado. “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.”
After 6 furlongs in 1:11.24, Swiss Skydiver led by a neck as Authentic kept pace and Art Collector came under pressure inside of Pneumatic. Swiss Skydiver and Authentic exited the turn side-by-side and well clear of the others. John Velazquez shook up the Derby winner and hit him left-handed despite the tight quarters as the outside horse looked poised to wear down the leader. Authentic dug in and drew closer. Albarado pulled his whip through to his left-hand late, asked for everything – finally – and Swiss Skydiver came out to meet the challenge. Velazquez went right-handed, Authentic’s nose got to her white shadow roll but no closer as Swiss Skydiver held firm.
The jockeys exchanged fist bumps on the gallop-out, respectful of a race between hard-trying horses. One flight up in the outdoor box seats near the finish line, McPeek let out a long can-you-believe-it? laugh, hugged his wife Sherri and – for about a second – let a fraction of doubt creep into the celebration.
“We did get up, right?”
The angle from McPeek’s seat was a little funny, Pimlico’s finish post is wide, it was a big moment but – yes – they got up. Purchased by McPeek for $35,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September in 2018, Swiss Skydiver made history and made her trainer sound like a psychic in that Friday morning hosing session.
“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.”
Fifth after a half-mile in :47.65, Swiss Skydiver did her part, jumped into the race when the inside path opened and led at every call from there.
Watching it unfold, McPeek smiled and remembered his pre-race conversations. Albarado only picked up the mount because Tyler Gaffalione stayed in Kentucky due to travel restrictions for jockeys and learned about the filly by watching replays, riding her in the morning and listening to McPeek.
“If she takes you there, let her because that’s her,” trainer told jockey. “If she takes you to the quarter pole and you haven’t cut her loose yet, you’ll win.”
She took him. And she won.
In an era where horses’ campaigns seem to get shorter, Swiss Skydiver was making her ninth start of 2020 (the most in the field).
The schedule started in January at Tampa Bay Downs, where the daughter of Daredevil finished fifth in the Gasparilla Stakes at 7 furlongs. A month later, she finished third in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes-G2 at Fair Grounds. In March, it was Gulfstream Park and a win in the Gulfstream Park Oaks-G2 at 11⁄16 miles. When the traditional spring 3-year-old calendar got turned upside down because of the pandemic, McPeek sent Swiss Skydiver to Oaklawn Park and a win in the Fantasy Stakes-G3 May 1.
She made it three in a row by romping in the Santa Anita Oaks-G2 in California June 6. Swiss Skydiver stretched to 11⁄8 miles in the Blue Grass, and finished second to Art Collector, at Keeneland July 11.
Extended another furlong in the Alabama Aug. 15, she dominated – opening up by 6 lengths and coasting home by 31⁄2 over eventual Black-Eyed Susan runner-up Bonny South. McPeek thought about trying males again in the Kentucky Derby, but opted for the Oaks and Swiss Skydiver wound up second to Shedaresthedevil.
If you’re keeping score, and everyone was, that was eight races at as many racetracks in six states and a start in every month of the year except April. Through it all, Swiss Skydiver thrived. She ate, she trained, she bloomed. Baffert, whose filly Gamine was third in the Oaks, recognized it at Pimlico.
“She’s unbelievable how she keeps her weight,” the Hall of Famer said Thursday morning. “Gamine got so light on me. Those two trips to New York really just got her, knocked her out. Swiss Skydiver went everywhere.”
And handled it. McPeek gave credit to his filly, and said he wouldn’t have tried the schedule if she showed any signs of not thriving.
“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.”
At Pimlico, she trained early – somebody called it “Dark 15” – with Albarado aboard and then spent time with her trainer, who posted hotwalking videos on Twitter, letting her stop and stare at every corner, and brought her outside for those hosing sessions. They made him think of the early days of his racing career in the barn of 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.”
Now, he’s known for buying quality yearlings (chief among them Hall of Famer, two-time Horse of the Year and 2007 Preakness winner Curlin), training a deep stable with more than $4 million in earnings this year, serving a variety of Thoroughbred clients through his Magdalena Farm in Kentucky and Summerfield Training Center in Florida and for co-founding the Horses Races Now racing phone app.
The 2020 path to the Preakness took him back to his early days as a trainer.
“It’s nice,” he said of a chance to focus on one horse for a while. “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.”
Shopping for Callahan at Keeneland September, McPeek found Swiss Skydiver deep in the catalog as Hip 2997 in the Select Sales consignment. Bred in Kentucky by WinStar Farm, she was from the first crop of Daredevil. Her dam Expo Gold (by Johannesburg) won and had produced two winners. The rest of the catalog page included some quality – the Grade 3-placed Clouds of Gold, Mid-Atlantic stakes winner Mister Business and 10-time winner Starlight Cove – but nothing to advertise future stardom. McPeek is rarely all that concerned with catalog pages, however.
“I don’t discriminate,” he said. “I work the auction. I look for horses that have the body to do it. The only reason they’re not in earlier books is because their pedigrees haven’t popped. It’s where I started buying horses. My first clients would send me to Books Six and Seven and they would send me to Fasig October so I learned how to do it. Now I’ve got a bigger budget, but I short-list horses according to their physicals and I stick to them.” Swiss Skydiver fit the description. Callahan said yes, but gave all credit to his trainer.
“He picked her, told me there was a small vet issue but it was nothing he couldn’t handle,” said the owner. “I figured we might get a little discount. He told me early on she could really run. He said he wasn’t sure how far she could run, which is funny. Now he says she can run forever.”
Retired from a career in publishing and communications (he was once the principal shareholder in a company that owned the National Enquirer), Callahan got into racing via a racing partnership in the 1980s.
“My father’s Irish and the Irish love horses and when I was a kid we used to go to Central Park in New York City and I used to love to ride the carousel,” he said when asked if he had any horse background. “I was in the magazine business, had a client who bought remnant advertising space, and he taught me a lot and did a lot of business with me. One day we were having breakfast and he said, ‘I’m starting a horse partnership and I want you to invest.’ This guy was buying a lot of advertising from me and I wasn’t going to say no.”
Callahan was a “passive” investor in the venture and it didn’t do much, but he stayed in when they did not and has had his share of success. He campaigned Grade 1 winner Bevo among others with trainer Billy Badgett in the 1990s and went to the Breeders’ Cup with McPeek and Beautician in 2009. In partnership with Runnymede Farm and/or Catesby Clay, Callahan bred Grade 1 winners Collected and Awesome Gem among others.
The owner calls Swiss Skydiver a horse of a lifetime and realizes she’s a long way from his introduction to the sport.
“We knew we had a good one in November  when she started the first time,” he said a few days after the Preakness. “We bet and we made a ton of money. We had no idea she was a stake horse because it was one of those restricted races [by auction price] and we weren’t sure of the level of competition, but she’s just gotten better every time she’s run. We’re dancing in the high clouds now.”
Callahan didn’t get a chance to dance at Pimlico, as he stayed in New York and watched on television with his family. They’d made the trip to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Oaks, and nearly came to Baltimore before opting out. Blame Covid-19.
“We were going to drive down but late in the week the president came down with the coronavirus which set off alarm bells with my family,” he said. “I’m a 78-year-old guy with pre-existing conditions. Fancy term, but I’ve got a totally compromised immune system. When the president got it, I guess they figured anybody could get it. We decided Thursday we were not going to go to Baltimore.”
As much as he hated to miss it, he was fine with the decision and called the televised version a huge thrill. He watched with daughters Christine and Carolyn and granddaughters Cameron and Callie. Swiss Skydiver gets her name from Callie, who jumped out of a plane over the Alps while on a study-abroad trip in college.
“We whooped it up pretty good,” Callahan said of the reaction. “In the end it worked out because if we drove three hours down there and lost, the three hours home wouldn’t have been any fun and after she won we would have wasted three hours driving when we could have been celebrating.”
Callahan loved seeing McPeek and Albarado explain how it happened, and recognized their joy.
“I couldn’t help but face the fact that the spotlight was on the two guys it should have been on – Kenny and Robby,” the owner said. “What does an owner do? He gets up, accepts the trophy and says three words. Everybody wants to talk to the trainer and the jockey anyway. Kenny’s wife Sherri got to accept the trophy, and she did a brilliant job. I would have screwed it up. I might have cried.”
NOTES: Marylander Annie Finney rode Art Collector all week, filling in as an exercise rider for Tommy Drury on the recommendation of her former boss Neil Howard. Finney rode Horse of the Year Mineshaft and others for Howard, and also galloped classic winner Palace Malice and others for trainer Todd Pletcher. These days, she’s back in Maryland and rides for trainer Cyril Murphy on owner Irv Naylor’s farm. Though she’s not getting back on the national racing scene, she enjoyed the brief return. “It’s kind of fun to get to be fancy for a couple days,” she said Thursday morning. “He seems like a really smart horse, he’s so cool, I love him. I would like to keep him. He knows the drill. He’s very easy to ride and pretty much does everything on his own. I just sit there.” Scratched the week of the Derby with a minor foot injury, Art Collector was fourth, his first loss of 2020 . . . Owners of Preakness starters and others on the card were able to use railside hospitality tents on the Pimlico apron, but otherwise attendance was limited to essential personnel only – trainers, assistants, racing officials and limited media . . . Just one horse, Max Player, started in all three Triple Crown races. He was third in the Belmont Stakes in June, fifth in the Kentucky Derby in September and fifth in the Preakness . . . Maryland-based jockeys Jevian Toledo (third aboard Jesus’ Team), Sheldon Russell (sixth with Excession), Horacio Karamanos (ninth with Ny Traffic) and Trevor McCarthy (11th with Liveyourbeastlife) picked up Preakness mounts.