Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
On the racetrack, they show a fierceness and tenacity that draws fans to them. The will to win pushes them to the front each time, showing the physical talents and mental fortitude that grabbed the attention of those who picked them out among thousands of young horses. These fillies and mares race at the highest levels, bringing their owners, trainers, and caregivers great victories that send them straight into the history books. They bond over early morning exercises and afternoon achievements.
And then when those racing days are done, these horses take a turn around the sales ring before moving on to the next phase, leaving behind those who cared for them over their years on the track.
For Kenny McPeek, Swiss Skydiver was a star who brought him a Triple Crown classic and then went on to sell at the Night of the Stars at Fasig-Tipton November, a bittersweet goodbye for a historic filly. Bell’s the One and Neil Pessin are on the precipice of the same, a poignant reminder of what time means in the sport of kings.
Neil Pessin and Bell’s the One
In trainer Neil Pessin’s barn at Churchill Downs, the queenly Bell’s the One occupies the second stall and a special place in her trainer’s heart. Five seasons into her career, the Grade 1-winning mare was on the path to next week’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint and then a turn in the sales ring at Fasig-Tipton’s Night of the Stars. However, a minor setback meant that she would not get that final try for Breeders’ Cup glory, so now Pessin counts down the days – and the mints – until Bell’s the One leaves her stall for the last time.
“I was hoping to go 14 of 28 with her,” Pessin reflects on the missed opportunity with Bell’s the One. “She’s a better filly now than she was then. I thought we had a real shot to win this year.”
As he prepares to send Bell’s the One from the backside to the sales ring, the trainer contemplates what made this mare so special. He picked her out at the 2017 Fasig-Tipton Select Yearling Sale, where her athletic look and catlike walk prompted him to visit her five times before bidding even started. She then hammered at $155,000 for Pessin, who purchased her on behalf of owner Bob Lothenbach. When Bell’s the One arrived for her 2-year-old season, she showed an abundance of talent and a few quirks at the same time.
“When she was younger, she would stop in the middle of training. We had to go in and lead her off,” the trainer remembers. “Now she has to work in company. She takes her time getting to racetrack. She just stops and looks. She has a little John Henry in her that way.”
In her five seasons on the racetrack, Bell’s the One has steadily improved year after year, winning at least one stakes race each season, starting with the Letellier Memorial Stakes at Fair Grounds during her 2-year-old campaign in 2018. Since then, Bell’s the One has outdueled the likes of Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress in the Grade 1 Derby City Distaff Presented by Derby City Gaming and gotten the better of Ce Ce, 2021 Breeders Cup’ Filly and Mare Sprint victress, and Sconsin, two-time winner of the Grade 3 Winning Colors Stakes. She gave Pessin his first Grade 1 win with her Derby City Distaff and retires as one of the most successful horses to race at historical Churchill Downs, with six wins on her résumé.
“She’s done enough for us. She has been getting better every year. She’s going to be seven years and at some point, you’ve got to pull the plug,” says the veteran trainer. “She’s done everything we’ve asked her to, and I thought it was time.”
But saying goodbye is never easy, especially for a smaller stable like Pessin’s, who keeps around 15 horses in his barn. Bell’s the One has been a part of his life for five years now, a more-than-willing recipient of her conditioner’s generous pocketfuls of peppermints. “She gets a lot of mints, probably 50 a day. She’ll throw her head up and down and sideways and just check your pockets if you’re close by.”
The two also have a playful relationship, creating memories that the trainer says will stay with him long after the mare has left his barn: “She’ll act like she’s going to bite me and never does. Like I say, I think she bluffs a lot, but I don’t want to test her.”
Though Bell’s the One remains in light training, her days on the racetrack are down to a few, with the sales ring her next destination. For Pessin, this is a time of reflection, a chance to contemplate what the daughter of Majesticperfection has brought to these years.
“She means a lot personally. Just to have a filly with that much heart and determination in your barn. And one you feel confident in no matter where you run her, when you run her, when you lead her over, you know you have a big shot in fact you’re going to win, it’s very satisfying.”
“She has cost me a lot of money in win photos,” Pessin laughs.
When the lights go up at Fasig-Tipton, when hip 267 walks into the ring, Bell’s the One will have her fan club sitting in the audience. Pessin knows that the moment will be “feel wonderful and sad at the same,” but “no question, I will be there. The only way I won’t be there is if they’re cremating me.”
Kenny McPeek and Swiss Skydiver
Last year, Kenny McPeek was in Pessin’s shoes, preparing to say goodbye to a filly that had brought him and his family joy during a tough time. In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the rescheduling of the year’s Triple Crown races, McPeek was experiencing a season of great highs thanks to Swiss Skydiver, who announced herself at Gulfstream Park in March 2020 and spent the rest of the year wowing fans with her tenacity in the face of all challenges.
At the 2018 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, this daughter of Daredevil caught McPeek’s eye in the sale’s later books. “She was just a very well-made, rock-solid type of filly,” the trainer remembers. “I thought she looked the part and stood over herself really well.” Bidding on behalf of owner Peter Callahan, McPeek got her for $35,000. She would go on to win many times that.
From day one, Swiss Skydiver proved to be a valuable addition to the trainer’s barn: “She was always real professional. Always did everything right every day, a lovely filly to be around from the beginning,” After a chipped ankle pushed her two-year-old debut back, the filly started her career with a win at Churchill Downs in November 2019. Her next win came in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Oaks before the Grade 3 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park and then the Grade 2 Santa Anita Oaks. When the pandemic changed the year’s schedule, pushing the Longines Kentucky Oaks and other classic races back several months, McPeek opted to send Swiss Skydiver to Keeneland for the delayed Toyota Blue Grass Stakes against the boys.
Her second-place finish behind Art Collector showed the filly had the right stuff to run in open company, another indication of the quality McPeek spotted early on. “She is extremely intelligent and knew her job. You put her next to another horse and she’d do everything she was supposed to do every time,” the trainer says, “Good horses, they do that. They understand their task. Her intelligence was a big deal.”
Capitalizing on the quality Swiss Skydiver was showing as 2020 progressed, McPeek next sent her to Saratoga for what her trainer considers one of her best races, the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes. Over ten furlongs, the filly ran under a tight rein just behind Crystal Ball and then powered away to a 6½-length lead heading into the stretch, sailing to a 3½-length victory. After finishing second to Shedaresthedevil in the delayed Kentucky Oaks, McPeek had a decision to make: where should she go next?
“It was a difficult decision. I could have run her against older horses in the (Juddmonte) Spinster (Stakes at Keeneland) or run her against straight 3-year-olds at Pimlico,” the trainer remembers. Team Swiss Skydiver opted for the Preakness Stakes, a second chance at running in open company, this time against a field that included Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner Authentic. “I really stuck my neck out running her in that spot, but she pulled it straight through for us.”
In what became the filly’s signature win, “she looked Authentic in the eye and just fought him off.” That kind of determination won her a loyal legion of fans, eager to see what the filly would do next. She also gave McPeek two professional milestones: a second Triple Crown classic and his first Eclipse Award winner.
“2020, with everything that everyone went through, our whole year the whole reminder was Swiss Skydiver and everywhere she took us,” the trainer says. “It was just a great, great time to be around her. Something we relish.”
At four, Swiss Skydiver started the year with a win in the Grade 1 Beholder Mile before finishing third in the Apple Blossom Stakes behind Letruska and Monomoy Girl and then fourth in the Whitney Stakes behind eventual Horse of the Year Knicks Go. At the end of her 2021 season, owner Peter Callahan opted to send the daughter of Daredevil to the Night of the Stars sale at Fasig-Tipton. It was a bittersweet moment for the entire McPeek family. “It was painful. We didn’t want to see her go.”
After selling for $4.7 million to Katsumi Yoshida, Swiss Skydiver made her way to her new home at Northern Farm in Japan. Saying goodbye to the filly was tough: “It’s like losing a friend sometimes, especially for those of us who work with them every day.”
In the end, the 2020 Preakness winner and champion 3-year-old filly leaves behind a lifetime of memories for McPeek and a great story for anyone who loves the sport of horse racing.
“She’s a bit of the Cinderella story. She wasn’t a big money horse,” says her conditioner. “That’s the dream that we all wish for. So many wish for a horse like Swiss Skydiver, I think that’s what makes her unique. She wasn’t a million-dollar yearling. She was a $35,000 yearling that went on to fulfill some huge dreams for some really nice people, the Callahans and the others, for anyone that followed her.”
For McPeek, Pessin, and anyone who cares for a top-tier horse, that transition from stall to sale is one of the toughest parts of the job. The days may be long, planning, training, and preparing for the next race, but the years are short, full of moments, big and small. Whether it is a winner’s circle full of smiling faces or a pocketful of mints, those scenes are fleeting chances to bond and to share a small window of time in the life of the sport.
As broodmares, both Swiss Skydiver and Bell’s the One have the chance to pass on the intangibles that made them great. Their next careers give their connections more chances to share a mint and a playful pat.
“I’m not saying goodbye,” Pessin says. “I’m saying, ‘See you later.’”