For the sheer sport of it, the Pandemic Preakness of 2020 was great theater, a celebration of Thoroughbred racing at its highest level.
A pair of top ranked three-year-olds, one a colt, the other a filly, asserting their dominance at the end of a Triple Crown classic, separated by a long nose—and 10 lengths ahead of the third horse.
The show put on by Swiss Skyrider and Authentic was a fitting conclusion to a memorable Triple Crown season, whatever its schedule, whatever its timing, whatever the Belmont Stakes distance.
It was what it was.
And what it was, was a divisional-leading Tiz the Law underscoring his ranking with a comprehensive, ruling victory of his rivals in the mile and an eighth “Prep of the Champion.”
Then it was the divisional leader losing narrowly to Authentic, the best horse on that day, under Hall of Fame handling from Johnny Velazquez, one of the sport’s best ever, drilled to the minute by a Hall of Famer who crammed stamina into his athletic star.
Finally, it was a throwback filly, making her ninth start of the year at the highest levels—think about that for a moment—over nine disparate venues, handling every one of them the same, with grit and class, saving her best for last.
Never mind that she was a dominant Alabama winner, or a gallant Blue Grass and Kentucky Oaks runnerup; she went eyeball to eyeball with a Kentucky Derby winner, bringing the race to him then staring him down the length of the stretch at Old Hilltop.
Maybe it was the unusual Fall timing, or the fact that Tiz the Law deferred, but the 2020 Preakness lacked the usual buzz even with a divisional-leading filly meeting the new divisional-leading colt.
Fans and media were left with anticipating a feel-good story and bought into it; redemption for a badly timed misfortune that kept the Blue Grass winner out of the Louisville starting gate, and for a trainer’s trainer thrust into an unaccustomed spotlight.
And that’s what everyone got, a feel-good story, only it wasn’t the tale of Tom Drury. What fans got was a jockey in the fourth quarter of his career, all but forgotten except for a hard-boot horsemen compelled to reach out for an old team-mate at time of entry.
A brilliant race ride won the 2020 Kentucky Derby. A brilliant—and daring—race ride won the Preakness.
When the retired Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey was at the peak of his career, he was noted for getting “a rail pass.” How could he get through inside so easily, so often?
“I had an opportunity, a split second to take advantage of the rail because Johnny was sitting off the fence,” Albarado told a national audience. “I made a conscious decision on the backside, it’s give- or-take now… I said let me try and make this Jerry Bailey move and win.”
It was the right move at the right time in the right place; a classic, defeating a Kentucky Derby winner, just as he had done aboard Curlin in the 2007 Preakness with its narrow, hard-earned defeat of Street Sense.
The worst criticism jockeys can get is that they moved too soon. But it’s no surprise that Albarado had the guts to make such a daring move. He knew what he had beneath him, knew if he went around instead of inside, the colt might have gotten brave up front.
He trusted the instincts he developed when he galloped his first horse at age 9. At 47, his reaction time is still sharp, not bad for a rider who had part of his skull replaced with titanium mesh and polymer plate, the result of a fracture over two decades ago.
And two years after that, Albarado suffered another bad accident, one that kept him on the ground for more than a year.
Now it’s 20 years later and Albarado can count a Preakness-winning filly, one with a remarkable blend of speed, versatility, staying power and high class, among his more than 5,200 career winners.
Who knows? His gambit aboard Swiss Skyrider might be enough to get him elected to Racing’s Hall of Fame one day, just as his Preakness ride thrust his filly’s name into the conversation for Horse of the Year.
The 2020 Breeders’ Cup is the next big thing to think about for everyone who is tethered to the game. Talk about perfect timing.