When trainer Ken McPeek decided to buck history by entering the filly Swiss Skydiver in the 145th Preakness Stakes on Saturday, he was keeping close to him the words of his late mother, Ann.
“Son, stretch yourself,” she told him. “You’ll be fine.”
McPeek stretched himself when he thought lightly-regarded Sarava deserved an opportunity in the Belmont Stakes in 2002. When Triple Crown threat War Emblem lost all hope by stumbling badly at the start, Sarava pulled a massive upset at 70-1.
McPeek stretched himself when he saw potential in Swiss Skydiver where others did not. He purchased her for Peter Callahan for the relatively meager sum of $35,000. She owns four graded-stakes victories in eight starts this season, topped by the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga in mid-August, and has earned more than $1.1 million.
McPeek surely is stretching himself now in believing Swiss Skydiver can become the sixth filly to win the Preakness from 55 female starters. Although Rachel Alexandra accomplished the feat in 2009, it had been an 85-year gap before that. A run to the history books – OK, a quick internet search – shows Flocarline (1903), Whimsical (1906), Rhine Maiden (1915), and Nellie Morse (1924) as the other female Preakness winners.
Fabulous female Kentucky Derby winners Genuine Risk and Winning Colors could not get the job done in what is normally the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. Genuine Risk finished second to Codex in 1980. Winning Colors’ best was only good enough for third behind Risen Star and Brian’s Time in 1988.
McPeek is asking Swiss Skydiver to beat the boys for the second time this season. Fellow Preakness starter Art Collector dispatched her with relative ease in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on July 11 at Keeneland, pulling away by 3 1/2 lengths. It also is disconcerting for her fans that she was upset by Shedaresthedevil in the Sept. 4 Longines Kentucky Oaks in her most recent start.
The connections also considered testing older fillies and mares in the Grade 1 Juddmonte Spinster Stakes on Sunday at Keeneland. Another option was giving her a try on turf in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup on Oct. 10 at Keeneland.
“In the case of running against older fillies and mares, we’ve got a lot of time to do that,” McPeek said. “In the case of running on the grass, I think she’d like it. I think she could have won the QE II.”
Since he wanted to keep her in the company of 3-year-olds for as long as possible, that meant the 1 3/16-mile Preakness.
“If they had written a 3-year-old filly race at a mile and an eighth or a mile and a quarter, a Grade 1, it would have been a no-brainer. We’d probably be in that,” he said, adding, “You only get a window of time to run against straight 3-year-olds, and that’s here and now.”
The morning-line odds suggest that McPeek’s willingness to stretch himself is not a reach in this case. Swiss Skydiver and Thousand Words are rated as the co-third choice at 6-1 in the field of 11 after favored Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner Authentic (9-5) and Art Collector (5-2).
Robby Albarado is excited to pick up the mount on Swiss Skydiver. He has enjoyed a long relationship with McPeek and said of the trainer, “He wouldn’t be here if she wouldn’t be competitive.”
While she didn’t win the Blue Grass, the daughter of Daredevil showed she could handle the rigors of competing in a large field of males. “Size-wise, she’s as big as the boys,” Albarado said. “She makes her presence known.”
The saying that pace makes the race will surely apply to this edition of the Preakness. Authentic, perceived to have distance limitations after Ny Traffic narrowly missed running him down in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell in July, was allowed to have things his own way as an unpressured front-runner in the Derby. Albarado is counting on that not happening again.
“Ideally, we’d like to sit off the pace, maybe lay third or fourth and they go quickly enough that maybe we can run them down,” he said. “Hopefully, the speed compromises itself and it give us a chance.”
McPeek sounds very much like a high-stakes gambler playing with house money.
“It’s all gravy. She only cost $35,000. She’s done more than we’d ever dreamt and she, hopefully, continues to do that,” he said. “That’s what keeps this game great. You can take a $30,000 yearling and run against a million-dollar colt and be competitive.”
In a sense, this is the kind of moment McPeek was born for.
“You can’t have fear. We’d like to get the big prize, and here we are,” he said, knowing how proud his mother would be.