Swiss Skydiver, With a Last-Minute Jockey, Wins the Preakness Stakes

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Sometimes the wrong jockey gets on the right horse. Ask Robby Albarado.

Last week, if you had said the name of the 47-year-old journeyman from Cajun country — known as southwest Louisiana outside of horse racing — you would have been asked: “Whatever happened to him?”

The answer could be found on Saturday in the winner’s circle of the Preakness Stakes after Swiss Skydiver became just the sixth filly, and the first since Rachel Alexandra in 2009, to beat the boys in the 145-year history of the race.

In the competitive and merry-go-round world of horse racing, Albarado had been left for dead. Back in 2008, he was the regular jockey on the two-time horse of the year Curlin, who won this race in 2007 as well as the 2008 Dubai World Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But a series of injuries, including two skull fractures, derailed his career. Bones snapped from his ankle to his shoulder on an annual basis, making him far more regular in physical therapy sessions than jock rooms. Albarado last won a top-level race three years ago and, until Saturday, he could be found riding inexpensive horses on the grits-and-hard-toast circuits at Indiana Grand in Shelbyville and Turfway Park in Florence, Ky.

But Swiss Skydiver’s trainer, Kenny McPeek, is a second-chance type of guy. Peter Callahan, Swiss Skydiver’s owner, entrusted McPeek with good horses when no one else would. And McPeek had won a lot of races with the healthy and wealthy Albarado.

And this summer, McPeek found himself in trouble.

Like all of sports, the coronavirus had upended the Triple Crown. The Preakness Stakes, normally run on the third weekend in May as the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, had become its final race, on the first Saturday of October.

Swiss Skydiver — and McPeek — were without a rider. Throwing his filly into the deep water with the boys had been a last-minute decision. Tyler Gaffalione, who won the Alabama Stakes in Saratoga and finished second in the Kentucky Oaks aboard Swiss Skydiver, already had commitments to ride at races at Keeneland on the day of the Preakness.

Albarado, though. was not even McPeek’s second choice: He reached out to the Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith first. Smith, however, could not get to Baltimore in time to do the testing and quarantining required by Maryland racing officials for the Preakness.

“We had to call him in at the last minute,” McPeek said of Albarado.

It was the lifeline Albarado had been awaiting. He and McPeek spent long days at Pimlico Race Course, with Albarado walking and galloping Swiss Skydiver. The trainer and jockey only left for meals, which they shared with each other.

Bettors at least, never gave Swiss Skydiver a shot. Authentic was sent off as the odds-on favorite. The colt had won the Kentucky Derby last month and was trained by the Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has recently made more headlines involving his run-ins with the sport’s regulators.

Last spring, Arkansas regulators suspend Baffert for 15 days and disqualified two of his winning horses after they tested positive for a banned substance. In addition, the Baffert-trained Justify failed a drug test after winning the Santa Anita Derby nearly a month before the 2018 Kentucky Derby. It should have disqualified him from the series, but California racing officials investigated the failed test for four months, allowing Justify to keep competing long enough to win the Triple Crown that year.

As the field of 11 headed into the far turn, it appeared that Authentic was going to give Baffert his eighth Preakness title, breaking a tie for most wins by a trainer with Robert Wyndham Walden, who saddled seven winners between 1875 and 1888. Authentic had an easy lead.

But Albarado — old, broken up and a habitué of the bush circuit — summoned his instincts of old. He dived Swiss Skydiver inside to the rail and zipped her right pass Authentic.

“If I make that move now, I got a shot,” Albarado recalled thinking. “If I wait, I get smothered.”

In a spectator-less clubhouse, properly socially distanced, McPeek understood what had just happened on the track.

“It was genius move by Robby,” he said. “He saw a hole and the rail, and she took him there.”

Yes, Swiss Skydiver did. With Albarado scrubbing her neck, the old jock and the allegedly outclassed filly stayed a neck ahead of Authentic all the way down the stretch.

In the end, Swiss Skydiver, the well-traveled daughter of Daredevil, covered the one-and-three-sixteenths-mile race in 1:53.28, rewarding her backers with $25.40 on a $2 bet. It was her sixth victory in 11 tries at seven different racetracks, and it pushed her career earnings past $870,000.

Each Triple Crown leg this year took on a different character in this strange era of sports. The Belmont, which kicked off the series for the first time in history, marked the return of a major sporting event to New York.

The Kentucky Derby was run against a tense backdrop of protests. Before the race began in Louisville, hundreds of people calling for racial justice circled Churchill Downs, and several members of a Black armed militia knelt in front of Louisville police officers stationed inside a fence erected around the track. It was the 101st day of protests in the city over the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black emergency room technician who was shot and killed in her home by police officers during a botched raid of her apartment.

The Preakness has earned the reputation for its easygoing-meets-anything-goes atmosphere. But with its sprawling infield devoid of its usual raucous, beer drinking crowds and the popular music acts performing on a stage, this Triple Crown season came to a quiet conclusion.

But at least the right rider wound up bring it to a conclusion with what many had considered to be the wrong horse.

“She’s so neat,” McPeek said of his winner. “I’m really proud of Robby.”

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