The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked considerable havoc throughout the world this year. But in a year in which it seems there have been so many more lowlights than highlights, a ferocious equine tussle all the way down the stretch in the 145th Preakness Stakes became a welcome diversion for Thoroughbred racing fans during these troubled times.
The resolute and durable filly Swiss Skydiver and Kentucky Derby winner Authentic put on a terrific show last Saturday that no doubt will be long remembered.
It was a race that for many conjured up memories of the goosebumps-producing stretch battle between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in the 1989 Preakness. Sunday Silence eked out a nose victory on that occasion in what is widely considered one of the greatest races in the long history of the Triple Crown.
In terms of memorable Triple Crown battles, last Saturday’s battle royale between Swiss Skydiver and Authentic also brought to mind for some the furious stretch duel between the filly Rags to Riches and the outstanding colt Curlin in the 2007 Belmont Stakes. Despite stumbling at the start, Rags to Riches won by a desperate head. (When in the heck are Hall of Fame voters going to get it right and elect Rags to Riches to the Hall of Fame?)
Another aspect to this year’s Preakness, which wrapped up a coronavirus-related revamped Triple Crown series, was the marvelous ride by Robby Albarado on Swiss Skydiver.
Swiss Skydiver exited the starting gate alertly. In fact, she broke first, then settled nicely two to three lengths off the lead through the early furlongs.
For whatever reason, Thousand Words and Authentic dueled for the early lead. This came as something of a surprise to many. That’s because Hall of Famer Bob Baffert trains them both. Authentic did open about a 1 1/2-length lead for a brief time on the backstretch when Thousand Words began dropping back.
Approaching the far turn, Swiss Skydiver made an early move. She came through between Thousand Words and Art Collector, then continued on willingly along the inside rail to take on Authentic. It was rather nervy of Albarado to allow the filly to make such an early run rather than remain in a stalking position. No doubt Albarado would have left himself open for being bashed (particularly in the Twitter-verse) for moving too soon if the filly had lost.
Albarado once was deemed good enough to be the regular rider of Curlin, a two-time Horse of the Year. They collaborated to win the 2007 Preakness. But Albarado had fallen out of favor in recent years. That made his Preakness ride on Swiss Skydiver all the more laudable in that he rode the race as if he had ice water in his veins.
How much had Albarado fallen out of favor? Mainly through lack of opportunities, he had not won a Grade I race since 2017 until this year’s Preakness. He also had not won a single graded stakes race this year until the Preakness.
When Swiss Skydiver poked her head in front with about four furlongs to go, Authentic by no means threw in the towel. These two raced side-by-side for the remaining half-mile. But during that entire time, Swiss Skydiver was able to maintain a slight lead in an exhibition of supreme bulldog tenacity. Authentic kept trying and trying for every step of the final four furlongs, but he just could never quite get his nose back in front.
Swiss Skydiver won by a neck. As for Authentic, for him to run as well as he did, only to come away with a loss, was a huge disappointment for his connections. Baffert had hoped to see Authentic in charge early rather than vying for the lead with, of all horses, Thousand Words.
According to Baffert, jockey John Velazquez explained “that it just didn’t work out” to take control early and, consequently, the rider decided to rate Authentic.
Authentic “doesn’t like rating,” Baffert said. “He wants to go fast [early]. We had to get the [early] lead. He runs better on the lead. He likes to be out there running fast. When I saw 24 [seconds for the opening quarter], that’s really slow for him. That’s how he won the [Kentucky] Derby, get him running early.”
Velazquez said he asked Authentic for some run heading to the far turn in an effort to maintain a clear lead that the colt had briefly established. But when Johnny V. asked Authentic at that point, the rider said a strong response was not there. That’s when Swiss Skydiver came to him.
“I tried to get him rolling again,” Velazquez said of Authentic, “but he just stayed with that other horse from the half-mile pole to the wire.”
BAFFERT COMES CLOSE TO PREAKNESS RECORD
With Authentic, Baffert narrowly missed becoming the winningest trainer in Preakness history.
Baffert shares the record of seven Preakness winners by a trainer with R. Wyndham Walden.
Baffert’s seven Preakness winners have been Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Point Given (2001), War Emblem (2002), Lookin At Lucky (2010), American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018). American Pharoah and Justify were Triple Crown winners.
Walden saddled seven Preakness winners from 1875 to 1888.
Authentic’s narrow loss last Saturday was the first time that Baffert has lost the Preakness with a Kentucky Derby winner.
Prior to this year, all five of Baffert’s winners of the Run for the Roses -- Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, War Emblem in 2002, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018 -- also got the job done in the Preakness.
SWISS SKYDIVER HAD WEIGHT ADVANTAGE
Most people pay little attention to weight these days. Handicap races pretty much have gone the way of the dodo and phone booths. But it should be pointed out that because Swiss Skydiver is a filly, she received a three-pound sex allowance in the Preakness. Swiss Skydiver carried 123 pounds, three less than Authentic.
Baffert did praise Swiss Skydiver.
“That’s a good filly,” Baffert said. Authentic “had every chance to get by her. He got beat. He just couldn’t get by her. She dug in. She’s tough.”
It was a big gap from the embattled pair of Swiss Skydiver and Authentic all the way back to Jesus’ Team, who finished third at odds of 40-1 in the field of 11. Jesus’ Team ended up 10 lengths behind Swiss Skydiver.
This was not Art Collector’s day. He raced in contention through the early stages, but lacked the needed response in the lane and finished fourth, a head behind Jesus’ Team and 9 3/4 lengths behind Authentic.
It was Art Collector’s first 2020 defeat in five starts. He missed the Kentucky Derby after nicking the bulb of his left front heel with a hind hoof while galloping at Churchill Downs five days before that race.
Swiss Skydiver, 6-1 on Keith Feustle’s morning line, was sent away at 11-1. Authentic, the 9-5 morning-line favorite, went off as the 3-2 favorite. I had expected Authentic to be a shorter price than 9-5. I was right about that. But I thought Authentic would be 6-5 or lower. I was wrong about that.
ONLY SECRETARIAT HAS POSTED A FASTER FINAL TIME
The fractions in this year’s Preakness were :24.48, :47.65, 1:11.24 and 1:34.74. The quarters were run in :24.48, :23.17, :23.59 and :23.50, with a final three-sixteenths in :18.54.
Swiss Skydiver completed her 1 3/16-mile journey in 1:53.28 or 1:53 1/5 in fifths while racing on a surface that seemingly was lightning fast. The 1:53 1/5 clocking ranks as the second-fastest clocking ever registered by a Preakness winner.
The legendary Secretariat holds the record for the fastest final time by a Preakness winner. After making an electrifying move from last to first on the clubhouse turn, he won the 1973 renewal in 1:53 flat.
These are the 13 fastest final times in the history of the Preakness:
1:53 flat Secretariat (1973)
1:53 1/5 Swiss Skydiver (2020)
1:53 2/5 Curlin (2007)
1:53 2/5 Louis Quatorze (1996)
1:53 2/5 Tank’s Prospect (1985)
1:53 3/5 Summer Squall (1990)
1:53 3/5 Gate Dancer (1984)
1:53 4/5 Sunday Silence (1989)
1:54 flat Hansel (1991)
1:54 flat Canonero II (1971)
1:54 1/5 War of Will (2019)
1:54 1/5 Codex (1980)
1:54 1/5 Spectacular Bid (1979)
Secretariat’s original time for the Preakness was posted on the electric timer as 1:55 flat, which was not even close to reality. Daily Racing Form’s highly respected clocker, Gene “Frenchy” Schwartz, and another Racing Form clocker, Frank Robinson, told the Form’s executive columnist, Joe Hirsch, that they had both timed Secretariat in 1:53 2/5, which would have broken Canonero II’s track record of 1:54.
The members of Team Secretariat -- owner Penny Chenery, trainer Lucien Laurin and jockey Ron Turcotte -- were miffed in their collective belief that their superstar had been robbed of a track record.
In the Secretariat book “Big Red of Meadow Stable,” William Nack wrote of the final time for the 1973 Preakness: “Pimlico officials, conceding that the electric timer had malfunctioned, would later accept the time belatedly reported to them by the track’s official timer, E.T. McClean, who claimed he had timed Secretariat in 1:54 2/5. Later still, behind the impetus of handicapper Steve Davidowitz, the Maryland Racing Commission held a hearing on the matter and listened to testimony presented by CBS-TV, among others, that Secretariat had beaten Canonero’s track record…But despite the time reported by two veteran Racing Form clockers, and despite the evidence presented by CBS-TV, the racing commission would finally decide to keep McClean’s time as official.”
The Racing Form noted its disagreement with McClean’s 1:54 2/5 clocking in the 1973 Preakness chart. In the official Preakness chart, under the race time of 1:54, it states: “Daily Racing Form Time 1:53 2/5 New Track Record.”
In 2012, the Maryland Racing Commission held a hearing regarding Secretariat’s final time in the 1973 Preakness. For more than two hours, the commissioners heard testimony, backed by modern technology, to prove Secretariat’s Preakness time actually was 1:53.
The evidence at the hearing was so compelling that the commissioners deliberated for only about 10 minutes before announcing the vote had been 7-0 to change Secretariat’s official Preakness time to 1:53, a stakes record.
While many, including yours truly, had for years criticized the Maryland Racing Commission for its original decision to accepted McClean’s 1:54 2/5 clocking for Secretariat, I learned in 2012 that the commissioner’s hands actually were tied in 1973 by the state’s rules of racing at that time.
“State rules dictated that only the time from the official time keeper [McClean] could be used as a backup,” the Baltimore Sun’s Chris Korman wrote following the racing commission’s 2012 hearing. Penny Chenery, Secretariat’s owner, “challenged the ruling later in the summer [of 1973], and again in the late 1990s. That later appeal caused the commission to change its rules to allow for a time adjustment if compelling evidence could be presented.”
While I was extremely pleased that Secretariat finally received his Preakness record at the racing commission’s 2012 hearing, I also will remain forever grateful that McClean originally goofed in terms of Secretariat’s Preakness time. Why? If Secretariat had been properly credited with a track record at Pimlico, chances are Turcotte would have taken Secretariat in hand during the last part of the Belmont. But in the Belmont, Turcotte kept pumping his arms all the way to the finish, even though Secretariat was far in front. That’s because Secretariat and Turcotte weren’t just running against Sham and the other Belmont starters, they were running against the clock in a concerted attempt to break the 1 1/2-mile track record after seemingly being robbed of the 1 3/16-mile track record at the Preakness.
Years ago, I asked Turcotte about the Preakness and Secretariat’s time.
“Well, I think I feel the same as everybody, that he broke the record,” Turcotte said. “He deserved the record. There’s overwhelming proof that he broke the record. But they never gave it to him. Mind you, the Racing Form chart says it’s a record.”
I then asked Turcotte if it was in his mind at the Belmont that Secretariat had been denied a track record in the Preakness. Turcotte admitted he did indeed have that in mind during the final furlong of the Belmont. He said he did not want to take any chances of Secretariat being robbed of another track record.
“I did knuckle down on him a little bit the last 70 yards,” Turcotte said. “But I never did use my stick or tap him or anything. He just did it all on his own.”
I asked Turcotte if, at any time during the final furlong of the Belmont, he was looking at the timer in the infield.
“Oh, I was,” he said. “I was definitely looking at the timer. I was looking at the teletimer because I was not racing against any horse. All I was racing against was the clock at that point.”
Secretariat’s 2:24 Belmont clocking shattered Gallant Man’s track record set in 1957 by 2 3/5 seconds. Secretariat’s 2:24 remains the fastest 1 1/2 miles ever run by a horse on dirt.
I, for one, am glad that McLean messed up Secretariat’s final time in the 1973 Preakness. Because if he had not done that, then Secretariat probably would have been allowed to coast home during the last part of the Belmont to win by something like 10 or 15 lengths instead of by 31 in what many consider the greatest performance ever seen by a Thoroughbred in the history of American racing.
SWISS SKYDIVER RECEIVES CAREER-BEST BEYER
Prior to the Preakness, Swiss Skydiver’s top Beyer Speed Figure had been the 102 she recorded when she won Saratoga’s Grade I Alabama Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths on Aug. 15.
Swiss Skydiver was credited with a 105 Beyer Speed Figure for her Preakness performance. While she ran the second-fastest Preakness ever at 1 3/16 miles, the fact that her 105 is lower than so many other winners of the race obviously stems from the Beyer Speed Figure taking into account the determination that Pimlico’s main track last Saturday was much faster than normal.
Below are the Beyer Speed Figures for Preakness winners going back to 1991 (the figures prior to 2020 are listed in the American Racing Manual, which is now digital only):
2020 Swiss Skydiver (105)
2019 War of Will (99)
2018 Justify (97)
2017 Cloud Computing (102)
2016 Exaggerator (101)
2015 American Pharoah (102)
2014 California Chrome (105)
2013 Oxbow (106)
2012 I’ll Have Another (109)
2011 Shackleford (104)
2010 Lookin At Lucky (102)
2009 Rachel Alexandra (108)
2008 Big Brown (100)
2007 Curlin (111)
2006 Bernardini (113)
2005 Afleet Alex (112)
2004 Smarty Jones (118)
2003 Funny Cide (114)
2002 War Emblem (109)
2001 Point Given (111)
2000 Red Bullet (109)
1999 Charismatic (107)
1998 Real Quiet (111)
1997 Silver Charm (118)
1996 Louis Quatorze (112)
1995 Timber Country (106)
1994 Tabasco Cat (112)
1993 Prairie Bayou (98)
1992 Pine Bluff (104)
1991 Hansel (117)
FIRST FILLY TO WIN PREAKNESS SINCE 2009
Swiss Skydiver became the first filly to win a Triple Crown race since Rachel Alexandra captured the 2009 Preakness.
Six fillies now have won the Preakness: Flocarline (1903), Whimsical (1906), Rhine Maiden (1915), Nellie Morse (1924), Rachel Alexandra (2009) and Swiss Skydiver (2020).
MANY TRACKS VISITED DURING 2020 CAMPAIGN
Remarkably, Swiss Skydiver has made nine starts at nine different tracks this year: Tampa Bay Downs, Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita Park, Keeneland, Saratoga, Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course.
In Swiss Skydiver’s nine 2020 starts, she has won graded stakes races in five different states: Florida, Arkansas, California, New York and Maryland. She also has finished second in a pair of graded stakes races in Kentucky and third in a graded stakes in Florida.
All of this, of course, is to Swiss Skydiver’s credit. But kudos also must go to Kenny McPeek for the superlative training job he has done to keep the Peter Callahan-owned Swiss Skydiver in peak form at such a high level for so long, especially when the filly has done so much traveling.
HOW DID SWISS SKYDIVER GET HER NAME?
McPeek purchased Swiss Skydiver as a yearling for $35,000 at public auction on behalf of Callahan.
Two months later, Callahan received a video from his 20-year-old granddaughter, Callahan “Callie” Rasnake, that showed her making a parachute jump over the Swiss Alps.
At the time a student at Marist College in New York, Rasnake was studying in Europe and decided to fulfill something of a bucket list ambition to skydive over the Alps. She paid the fee to jump out of an airplane in tandem with the instruction from about three miles up.
When it came time for Callahan to name his Daredevil filly, he decided to go with Swiss Skydiver.
ENABLE THWARTED AGAIN IN BID FOR A THIRD ARC
The handwriting was on the wall when trainer John Gosden said candidly in a Racing Post story last Saturday that defeat was “a strong likelihood” for Enable because of expected heavy ground in Sunday’s Group I Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
It turned out that the ground was indeed heavy for the 2020 Arc. It also turned out that Gosden was spot on in his warning that Enable likely would be thwarted in her bid to make history and become the first three-time winner of the prestigious event.
Not only was Enable unable to get her third Arc victory last Sunday, she lacked a rally in the straight and ended up an inglorious sixth behind the victorious Sottsass.
This was the first time in Enable’s stellar 19-start career that the 6-year-old mare has finished worse than third. In addition to the heavy ground, perhaps this particular defeat also could be attributed to age catching up to her a bit.
Enable won the 2017 Arc on soft ground and the 2018 edition on a firm course, then had to settle for second to Waldgeist on soft ground in the 2019 renewal.
Owner-breeder Khalid Abdullah (Juddmonte Farms) sportingly brought Enable back for a 2020 campaign for the express purpose of trying to win a third Arc. But it was not to be. Again, based on Gosden’s comments beforehand to the Racing Post, it certainly seemed a loss probably was in the cards for Enable in this year’s Arc. Nevertheless, Enable was backed down to 9-10 favoritism.
“It’s obviously disappointing when a race of this stature is run on what will be specialist ground,” Gosden said in the pre-race Racing Post story. “The problem with this ground is she’s a classy filly and it’s hard to show your brilliance on a surface that is likely to turn it into a slog. It’s the same for everyone, but she’s a [mare] that ideally likes to run on the easy side of good ground.”
Gosden went on to say for Enable to be such a strong favorite on such demanding ground “is a bit absurd. They are backing her as if defeat is out of the question when I can assure you that defeat is a strong likelihood on this ground.”
As an indication of just how testing a surface the Arc contestants had to cope with, Sottass’ final time for the 2,400 meters (about 1 1/2 miles) was an extremely slow 2:39.30. This was the slowest Arc since Ivanjica won the race with a clocking of 2:39.40 in 1976.
Sottsass prevailed by a neck at odds of 7-1 for owner Peter Brant, trainer Jean-Claude Rouget and jockey Cristian Demuro.
This was not Sottsass’ first start in the Arc. He finished third behind Waldgeist and Enable last year.
A 4-year-old French-bred Siyouni colt, Sottsass now exits the racing stage having won six of 12 lifetime starts. He has been retired to stand at Coolmore Stud in Ireland.
For American owner Brant, he had dreamed of winning an Arc ever since he was in attendance at Longchamp to witness Mill Reef’s victory in 1971. Brant’s dream finally came true in 2020 with Sottsass, a half-brother to Brant’s Sistercharlie, the Eclipse Award-winning female turf horse of 2018.
Speaking of Mill Reef, one of my fondest memories of a trip to Europe in 1984 was seeing him being walked for some exercise one morning while I was in England. During that same trip, I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing the actual skeleton of Eclipse on display at that time in England at the Newmarket Racing Museum. And yes, that is who America’s Eclipse Awards are named after.
BAFFERT-TRAINED PAIR STILL ATOP NTRA POLLS
Despite Authentic’s narrow loss in the Preakness, he retained the top spot in this week’s NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll. Preakness winner Swiss Skydiver moved up to No. 3 after being No. 4 last week.
While Baffert’s Authentic tops this week’s NTRA Top Three-Year-old Poll, another Baffert-trained runner, Improbable, again is No. 1 this week in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll.
The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 401 Improbable (34)
2. 303 Maximum Security (2)
3. 249 Tom’s d’Etat (2)
4. 245 Vekoma (2)
5. 213 Monomoy Girl (1)
6. 160 By My Standards
7. 127 Authentic
8. 115 Tiz the Law
9. 114 Swiss Skydiver
10. 75 Rushing Fall
The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 378 Authentic (18)
2. 369 Tiz the Law (14)
3. 359 Swiss Skydiver (11)
4. 249 Art Collector
5. 155 Honor A.P.
6. 128 Gamine
7. 112 Shedaresthedevil
8. 110 Max Player
9. 52 Thousand Words
10. 45 Jesus’ Team