SARATOGA SPRINGS — Swiss Skydiver was supposed to sit this one out.
True to form, though, she’ll do nothing of the kind.
Despite gaps and changes to the stakes calendar this year, the chestnut filly who faced off against males in a major Kentucky Derby prep last time out has been all over the map since January.
Her latest landing stop is Saratoga Race Course, and while the option to train up to the Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks was considered, it’s full steam ahead into Saturday’s Grade I Alabama. Swiss Skydiver is the even-money favorite on the morning line against six rivals that include her stablemate Envoutante.
“The calendar’s been adjusted repeatedly because of the coronavirus, so we’ve been on the fly on what to do with her, but she’s handled it all,” trainer Kenny McPeek said Thursday morning.
That includes a second-place finish to Art Collector in the Grade II Blue Grass at Keeneland on July 11, for which Swiss Skydiver earned 40 Kentucky Derby qualifying points. That puts her at 13th on the list, well within a guaranteed spot in the Derby starting gate, if McPeek and owner Peter Callahan chose, but they’ll keep her in the 3-year-old filly division and tackle the Oaks, instead.
The Alabama is one of the stakes races that has remained pretty much where it’s supposed to be on the calendar, and because Swiss Skydiver has been acting like a horse who wants a race, McPeek will send her.
This will be her seventh race of 2020, after she got off to a late start to her career as a 2-year-old and didn’t get to the track until November, when she broke her maiden first time out at Churchill Downs.
All of her 2020 starts have been in stakes, with a three-race winning streak that included the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks in Florida in March, the Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in May and the Grade II Santa Anita Oaks in California in June.
“We ran her in Tampa early in the year at seven-eighths [of a mile], and she had a real troubled trip,” said McPeek, whose home base is at Churchill Downs in Louisville. “She probably should’ve won that day. After that race, it was pretty clear — and I told Peter Callahan, the owner — we need to get this filly to two turns, and the sooner the better. So we vanned her all the way to the Fair Grounds [in New Orleans] and ran her in the Rachel Alexandra. She ran well against some of the best fillies in the nation.
“Then we vanned her back. She’s traveled like crazy. I don’t know how many frequent flyer miles she’s got, but she’s been all over. We vanned her back to Gulfstream, she wins the Oaks down there, then we had to fly her to Oaklawn from there, and then she vanned back to Kentucky, trained in Kentucky, flew back to California, back … so, yeah, she’s been all over. And she’s been hickory through it all. She’s handled everything.”
Swiss Skydiver arrived at Saratoga just under two weeks ago and breezed once, five furlongs in 1:01.49 on the Oklahoma training track Saturday.
Racing against 12 colts in the Blue Grass, she was nearly made the favorite by the betting public, at 2.20-1 to Art Collector’s 2.30-1, and they were clearly the two best horses once the gate opened.
In typical fashion, Swiss Skydiver led most of the way, but Art Collector was too good, stalking the pace and driving past the filly to win by 3 1/2 lengths. It was another 4 3/4 lengths back to Santa Anita Derby third-place finisher Rushie in third.
On the same July 11 card, Swiss Skydiver’s stablemate Envoutante finished third behind Speech and Venetian Harbor in the Grade I Ashland, a major Kentucky Oaks prep.
“I was trying to keep these two fillies separated, because I thought Envoutante deserved a chance to run well in a graded stake,” McPeek said. “And I really felt like Swiss Skydiver had a chance to win the Blue Grass.
“I knew that there was one horse that I was worried about beating, and that’s the horse that beat us, Art Collector. And I don’t think we’re going to look back and be ashamed of the way we ran against him. He’s a really, really good horse.
“So in hindsight, I would rather have won, but she ran respectable. This race, we were originally going to probably skip it. But she’s been doing so well that we decided to stick to it. And she has come up here and, once again, she does everything you ask her to do.”
McPeek won the Alabama in 2018 with Eskimo Kisses, who ran in last place of eight fillies, including Midnight Bisou, and took advantage of very fast early fractions to close in the stretch for the victory at odds of 9-1.
The opposite scenario, with a comfortable pace early, would be to Swiss Skydiver’s advantage.
“We were going to train up to the Oaks. I wanted to get her up here for a little cooler weather, which it is better here, and I think the Alabama is a great race,” McPeek said. “It’s not a race you turn your nose up at, especially if you’ve got one doing good. I think she’ll handle the distance. On paper, she looks like the favorite, so we’ll see.”
If Swiss Skydiver makes it to the Kentucky Oaks, that would set up a big showdown between the established, well-traveled star against the rising star Gamine, who won the Test at Saratoga on Saturday by seven lengths.
“She’s a freaky talented filly,” McPeek said. “I assume she’s going back to the Oaks. We were working under the assumption that the Oaks wasn’t going to be an easy race, anyway.”
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