Kenny McPeek is not among the biggest names in horse racing. He does not have huge money behind him. But everybody in the sport knows him for making incredible deals and taking risks where only he can visualize the rewards.
It was McPeek who purchased Curlin for $57,000. The two-time horse of the year won the 2007 Preakness, the Dubai World Cup, the Breeders' Cup Classic, and $10.5 million in a Hall of Fame career. McPeek was not the horse’s trainer, but he saw the potential before anyone.
Two years ago, McPeek purchased a yearling filly for $35,000 at the Keeneland Sale. Saturday, that filly, Swiss Skydiver, racing for owner Peter Callahan, trained by McPeek and running at her ninth different track in nine starts this year, won the Preakness at Pimlico after a stretch-long duel with Kentucky Derby winner Authentic.
Why, many wondered, was McPeek running the filly against colts? And why, after other jockeys turned down the mount, did McPeek reach out to old friend Robby Albarado, whose career seemed near its end?
Turned out the trainer knew exactly what he was doing. Swiss Skydiver may have been 11-1, but she clearly belonged on form. And when a daring move needed to be made on the far turn, Albarado sent the filly between horses to challenge Authentic.
As the two pulled away from the field, Swiss Skydiver just ahead on the inside, Authentic on the outside, everybody kept waiting for the Derby winner to go by and give trainer Bob Baffert his record eighth Preakness. They are still waiting.
Swiss Skydiver grimly held on to win by a neck. It was almost 10 lengths back to Jesus' Team in third. It was essentially a match race for the final quarter-mile, and the brilliant filly won it.
Albarado did give the filly a great ride, but he needed the horse to get through that hole. She was there when it mattered most.
The jockey has won 5,218 races, 30th all-time. His mounts have earned $220 million, 14th all time. But he has won only 46 races the last two years. But when it came time, McPeek did not forget the man who was the regular rider for, yes, Curlin.
``I make that move now, or I wait, get smothered,'' Albrado said of the decision that won the race.
Swiss Skydiver has been the most consistent horse in America this year. Her last seven starts? Win the Gulfstream Park Oaks. Win the Fantasy Stakes. Win the Santa Anita Oaks. Second in the Blue Grass. Win the Alabama. Second in the Kentucky Oaks. Win the Preakness. That’s a great career and she has done all that since March 28.
``I’m just really proud of Robby,'' McPeek said. ``We had to call him into the game at the last minute, and he did a great job. I’m really proud of him, her, Peter Callahan. I wish he was here. It’s just a real honor to be around a horse like this. It’s a special moment.''
So this bizarre Triple Crown that began with a Belmont Stakes in mid-June, continued with a Kentucky Derby in early September, concluded with an October Preakness that was easily the most thrilling race of the year. There were no regular fans at Pimlico, but the owners, trainers, jockeys, and track workers whowere there saw a great race by a wonderful filly, the first filly to win the Preakness since Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
The 2020 Preakness winner was named after the owner’s granddaughter who sent him a video of her skydiving over the Swiss Alps. Swiss Skydiver’s campaign is not going to be perfect like Rachel’s was 11 years ago, but what she has done is a throwback to another time when horses ran all the time and held their form. Swiss Skydiver has run in each month but April, and she just missed by a day as she won at Oaklawn Park on May 1.
``I know those out there that questioned why is he running there?'' McPeek said. ``She continues to get stronger. It’s amazing. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. You’re around horses, and sometimes you run horses, and they come back tired. She never gets tired.''
Swiss Skydiver did not get tired in the Preakness. In fact, she ran the mile and three-sixteenths in a very fast 1 minute, 53.28. seconds. And she beat the Derby winner, who ran even better than he did in Kentucky.