SARATOGA SPRINGS — The Whitney Stakes will have a surrogate Queen of Saratoga on Saturday.
For decades, that nickname was bestowed upon Marylou Whitney, the socialite, philanthropist and Thoroughbred breeder/owner who graced Saratoga Race Course, especially on the race day that bears her family name.
Marylou died at the age of 93 in 2019, two weeks before she was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in the Pillars of the Turf category.
Two years later, the field for the $1 million Whitney, one of the hallmark races of every Saratoga meet, will include a champion filly who knows Saratoga well, having won the Grade I Alabama as a 3-year-old last year.
Swiss Skydiver will run against male horses for the third time in her career in the Whitney, a Plan B by trainer Kenny McPeek after Swiss Skydiver missed the Shuvee against fillies and mares on July 25 because of a quarantine at McPeek’s barn.
The 4-year-old Swiss Skydiver, who became the sixth filly — and first since Rachel Alexandra in 2009 — to win the Preakness, worked five furlongs in 1:01.21 on the Saratoga main track on Sunday. After that, McPeek declared her ready to take on a challenging collection of older males in the Whitney.
“She was ready three weeks ago,” he said.
“You look at her on paper, she’s going to have to run a big one. She’d have to run back to her Preakness win, she’d have to run back to maybe the Beholder win or even the Alabama. She’s proven she likes it here. It’s very do-able.”
Swiss Skydiver first ran against males when she was second to Art Collector in the Grade II Blue Grass at Keeneland last July, just prior to her win in the Alabama.
The Shuvee was meant to be a steppingstone to the Aug. 28 Personal Ensign on Travers Day, but McPeek’s whole Saratoga operation was waylaid by a positive test for Equine Herpesvirus-1 in a horse trained by Jorge Abreu, who shares barn 86 on the Oklahoma Annex across 5th Avenue from the Oklahoma Training Track.
The quarantine was lifted on Sunday, so McPeek’s horses were allowed to rejoin the general horse population after having worked for weeks during a specially designated window of time separate from the usual training hours on the main track and Oklahoma.
Irad Ortiz Jr. has been named to ride Swiss Skydiver in the Whitney, and he was on her back for the first time ever Sunday morning for the breeze on the main track.
“She does everything right,” Ortiz said. “I let her break from the pole, she relaxed very well, we go all the way to the turn, quarter pole, I just smooched a little bit to her and she took off. She responded very well, so I just left her there, hands down and never showed the stick. Whatever she did, she did it on her own, nice and easy.
“I showed the whip on the gallop-out and she responded very well, so I took a hold of her. The way she worked, I’ve got a little more confidence. She was moving great.”
“Great work,” McPeek said. “She does everything easy. We didn’t need to go that fast. I told him to go a minute, but I think they got her in 1:01 or something. He said when he touched her with the stick galloping out, she took off again, so she’s plenty ready.
“We were supposed to have Jose [Ortiz] on her in the Shuvee. Of course, that got caught up in the quarantine. Then we kind of checked around and debated on a list of options, including [regular rider] Robbie [Albarado], but we figured if Irad was open and we were up here, we’d go ahead and give him the mount.”
Swiss Skydiver won the Alabama last year on the way to an Eclipse Award as top 3-year-old filly. Her Preakness victory actually came in October, as the racing calendar experienced significant upheaval due to the pandemic. She closed out 2020 with a seventh-place finish to Monomoy Girl in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
She opened 2021 with a win in the Grade I Beholder Mile at Santa Anita and hasn’t raced since a third to division leader Letruska in the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in April.
More from The Daily Gazette: