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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Most handicappers and nearly every racing analyst I know—and I’m on the top of that list, owe Swiss Skywalker and trainer Ken McPeek an apology.

All of us were guilty of overthinking her vulnerabilities and underestimating her true talent and stamina going into Saturday’s Alabama Stakes.

Speaking for myself (even after writing last month about how special she was and might be on her way to an historic campaign) I looked for ways to beat her and beat myself instead.

We questioned the filly’s aggressive campaign, ambitious travel schedule, and the fact the Alabama would be her ninth start in 10 months at tracks in Louisville, Tampa, Hallandale Beach, Arcadia, New Orleans, Hot Springs, Lexington and Saratoga in 303 days.

This is a filly, I kept repeating to myself. And won’t the distance stop her? Does a Daredevil filly from a Johannesburg mare, Expo Gold, rate to go a mile and quarter? Seriously?

And so what if her trainer has had more than his share of success with fillies and makes a handsome living purchasing stock at the sales for five figures, and not six? Surely there were better Alabama alternatives.

The problem with unconventional thinking is more often than not it requires making the case instead of accepting what’s right in front of your eyes.

Of her six rivals, only two had won graded stakes. The rest were a couple of overnight stakes and fashionably bred allowance winners.

Two home-breds notwithstanding, the remaining four rivals cost an average $617,000, including one McPeek purchased for $250,000. Three of McPeek’s six training rivals are in the Hall of Fame, the other is a sure first-ballot entrant.

Allowing for inflation, and the fact that it’s a female, Swiss Skydiver is the Seattle Slew of the new millennium; Slew sold for $17,000; this miss went for $35,000, precisely the average cost of typical Daredevil offspring.

Thanks to Swiss Skydiver Daredevil’s stud fee will go up a ton because this miss is a four-time graded stakes winner, a slate that now includes a 10-furlong Grade 1 event that’s a century and a half old.

Oh, and a hard-trying, game Blue Grass placing to the likely Kentucky Derby second favorite, Art Collector.

Her timing could have been a bit better in that she was born in the same year as the brilliant Gamine, who will be favored over Swiss Skywalker in the Kentucky Oaks, NOV 4.

And knowing something about the tendencies of wise guys, the three-length Grade 1 Ashland winner Speech might turn out to be the Oaks’ co-second choice, but what do I know?

Eased across the finish line, the final quarter-mile time was very slow, 26.24. Then what do I know? Here’s what the people in closest proximity said: “She gets out there and she just keeps going,” Tyler Gaffalione told reporters post-race.

“She really doesn’t tire and I think if somebody would have come up next to her in the stretch, you would have seen a whole other horse.” And compared to the last time he rode her?

“She’s more intelligent and more focused on what she has to do. She can navigate much better and is just more powerful. She was just carrying me and she knew exactly what she wanted to do… Hopefully, we didn’t take too much out of her and she’ll be good to go for the Oaks.”

From the rider of runnerup Bonny South, Irad Ortiz, Jr., who hadd a four-win afternoon: “We wanted to relax at the beginning and come running at the end. It worked out good, we got second.” Then added “the winner was waiting for us by the eighth pole. She’s really nice.”

Finally, from the man who trains her: “She’s sturdy and that’s what you need in a good one,” McPeek said.

“If she had backed out of the feed tub or acted like she had wear and tear on her, we would have hesitated and probably waited or gave her some space in between, but she just loves what she does.” And on facing Gamine in the Oaks?

“It’s exciting,” he said. “It’s going to get a lot of attention. We don’t have any fear of her. My filly might have an advantage because Churchill is our base and she’s [gone] two turns repeatedly and hasn’t had any trouble doing that.”

And after that?

“If she could win the Oaks and is still in good order, I think the Preakness would be a great race to win with the filly,” McPeek said.

“We were trying to think a few steps ahead when we ran in the Blue Grass. We got the points we need for the Preakness in the Blue Grass and we found out how she fit against colts.”

On Tuesday, a review of the rest of the weekend, including the Saratoga Derby and Oaks and a pair of notable juvenile debuts

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5 Responses

  1. I love Swiss Skydiver. I was really hoping she’d be in the Kentucky Derby, but I can understand why she is being put in the Kentucky Oaks instead. I agree, I sure would love to see her in the Preakness. Fillies don’t run often enough in the triple crown races. I always hope to see them. I’d love to see what she can do in the Preakness

    1. Not to be a bummer but Eight Bells, a filly, ran in Kentucky Derby won by Big Brown (2008). She finished 2nd under furious whipping and broke down after finish line. Euthanized immediately. Jockey came under criticism for whipping. Tough game, horseracing is. Genuine Risk, another filly, did win Kentucky Derby so I am not making any statement about girls vs boys. I love the fact that SS cost 35k as a yearling. Now you couldn’t buy her for 2m. Good purchase.

      1. They named a stakes race (Gr ll) in her honor which is run every year at 7F for 3-year old fillies. It is held on KY Oaks day at Churchill Downs. The race is called The Eight Belles. Another filly to win KY Derby was Winning Colors under Gary Stevens in 1988. I watched this race at Longacres in Seattle. The track is now called Emerald Downs. Hey, it was The DY, of course I was gonna catch a bus in Seattle and go to the track! The “Coach” D. Wayne Lukas trained Winning Colors and used Stevens a lot. He has trained 20 Breeders’ Cup winners and is in Racing’s Hall of Fame (no kidding!).

  2. Ginger: Heard an analyst yesterday say that while everyone is anxious to see whether Tiz the Law can continue his amazing season, the race majority of true fans are looking forward more to the Gamine-‘Skydiver’ matchup. (And not to forget Speech)!

    I’m looking forward to both, obviously–very excited to see this year’s Oaks and Derby.

    As for the Preakness, it’s best to take them one at a time. Thanks for sharing!

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