With a last-minute fill-in rider, filly Swiss Skydiver won the Preakness Stakes thanks to some quick handiwork from trainer Kenny McPeek in the days leading up to the big race.
Just 36 hours before the deadline to secure a jockey for Swiss Skydiver for the Preakness, McPeek got news that Tyler Gaffalione had backed out. With time against him, McPeek made some quick calls to see who the best jockey for the job would be.
After some deliberation, McPeek got in contact with Robby Albarado, who agreed to ride Swiss Skydiver in the Preakness. However, McPeek had strict rules Albarado had to abide by leading up to the Triple Crown finale.
“I have some demands,” McPeek said on Glenn Clark Radio Oct. 5. “I said, ‘You [and] me are going to leave for Baltimore on the same plane. We are going to leave early. You’re going to get on her every day. We are going to spend some time with her so you get to know her really well. It’s not going to be a fly in at the last minute and you get on her and go. It’s going to be more of a let’s make a connection.'”
McPeek, a decorated thoroughbred trainer, has 1,738 wins and has stable earnings of more than $87 million under his belt. He knew exactly how to spark chemistry between Swiss Skydiver and Albarado in just a few days.
When it came time to actually race, McPeek made it clear to Albarado that Swiss Skydiver was capable of winning the race on her own — if Albarado just let her do the work. And, naturally, Albarado only had to hit her once and finished on top.
“I said, ‘Don’t get in a hurry, let her do most of the work and let her take you there and if you haven’t moved by the head of the stretch you’ll win this race,'” McPeek said. “And he said when the gap opened down the backside going into the second turn, he said [that] she just took him there and he let her go because she was full of energy.”
Swiss Skydiver is the first filly to win the Preakness since Rachel Alexandra in 2009. Swiss Skydiver is also only the sixth filly ever to win the Preakness. This win marked the second Triple Crown victory of McPeek’s career. His first was in the 2002 Belmont Stakes with Savara.
McPeek mentioned that prior to the race he thought Swiss Skydiver had a great chance of winning against her opposing horses. But the fact that Albarado was a new rider who hadn’t had a ton of success of late made Swiss Skydiver’s chances of winning not as high.
“When you put her on paper with the rest of the field she was first or second, on paper,” McPeek said. “The fact that she was with a new rider and a rider that hadn’t been playing at the top of his game maybe, well, that just extends her odds. I didn’t sit down and say, ‘Aw let’s just go.’ I sat down and got all the information. I laid it all out on my desk here in my home. I told [owner Peter J. Callhan] she fits in the race. She’s third or better if she runs her race.”
McPeek has been waiting a while to get a win at the Preakness Stakes. He reminisced how close he had been in years past — but he never reached first until now.
“I had been knocking on the door in quite a few of them. I had third in the Belmont [Stakes]. I had third in the Preakness, a couple of fourths in the Preakness. You know, things have to come together,” McPeek said. “… You just don’t know when it’s your turn, you just keep getting up and working and doing the best that you can for the people that you work for and you hope you get a horse that is that good. And we pulled it off.”
More than 130,000 fans attended the Preakness Stakes in 2019. Only 250 people, none of whom were fans, were allowed to be at Pimlico Oct. 3 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked if the lack of fans had any effect on him, McPeek quickly responded with a concrete answer: No.
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” McPeek said. “You know what happens with horsemen is that we focus in on our horses. … When I look over, I’m not looking at the crowds. I’m looking at whether my filly is acting right. I’m worried if the tacks are on right, making sure my wife has her seat and she is in the right position. I am oblivious to the rest of it, and I always have been.”
For more from McPeek, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kenny McPeek