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As the lone filly in Preakness field, Swiss Skydiver brings her road-warrior spirit to Pimlico

Her year began in Florida, then wound through Louisiana, Arkansas, California, Kentucky and New York.

Name a state that’s held a major horse race this year, and Swiss Skydiver has probably run there. No matter what trainer Kenny McPeek has thrown at her, she seems undaunted.

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“She likes to run, she likes to train and she likes to eat,” McPeek said. “Usually, racehorses, when they’re feeling some fatigue, will back out of the feed tub. But she’s been very consistent. She’s kind of a throwback horse and all year, she’s kept taking us to the next race to the next race to the next race. She loves what she does.”

Which is why he felt comfortable bringing her to Baltimore, not for the all-filly Black-Eyed Susan Stakes but to challenge the boys in the Preakness.

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“We could have run in the Black-Eyed Susan,” McPeek said. “We probably would have been heavily favored, and she probably would have galloped home. But I don’t know what that would have added to her resume. Looking at the past performances, she fits against the colts.”

Swiss Skydiver is the 55th filly to run in the Preakness and the first since 2014, when Ria Antonia finished last, 31 lengths back of California Chrome. In 2009, Rachel Alexandra went off as the favorite and became the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness on her way to American Horse of the Year honors.

“She had something to prove, and I felt she proved it emphatically,” trainer Steve Asmussen said in the wake of that victory.

Though fillies are often treated as exotic entries to the Triple Crown races, McPeek said he doesn’t see Swiss Skydiver’s Preakness appearance as such a big deal. He noted that in Europe, top female horses routinely run and win against the boys.

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“They don’t even blink about it,” he said. “Obviously, [fillies] have to show they’re that talented. We just tend, in American racing, not to do it.”

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who will saddle Kentucky Derby champion Authentic for the Preakness, said he’s occasionally tempted to enter his best fillies in the Triple Crown series. He ran one of his greatest female champions, Silverbulletday, in the 1999 Belmont Stakes only to regret his decision when she faded to seventh after leading much of the 1½-mile race. He still believes he cost her Horse of the Year honors by throwing her in to the third leg of the Triple Crown.

“I think there’s a certain time you can do it,” he said. “It depends on your horse, if you have a big, strong horse, or something like that.”

McPeek acknowledged that he probably would have entered Swiss Skydiver in a Grade 1 race for 3-year-old fillies if one had been available around this time on the calendar.

Though her record in graded stakes is comparable to or better than those of the top male competitors in the Preakness field, Swiss Skydiver is a 6-1 co-third choice in the morning line. She lost to one of the colts she’ll face, Art Collector, by 3½ lengths in the July 11 Blue Grass Stakes.

McPeek was not discouraged by what he saw that day, when his filly beat every other male in the field. He felt she was burned out by a fast early pace and had no juice at the finish against “a horse with a lot of speed and a lot of talent.”

Given a more measured pace, he believes Swiss Skydiver could challenge Art Collector and morning-line favorite Authentic, who likes to sprint to an early lead.

McPeek was also undaunted by Swiss Skydiver’s runner-up finish to Shedaresthedevil in the Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks.

“She ran her race. She always does,” he said. “I was disappointed in the ride. I thought [jockey Tyler Gaffalione] should have stayed inside. If he’d stayed inside, she would have won the race.”

McPeek began training 35 years ago and broke out with his first Grade 1 winner, Tejano Run, in 1994. Known as a creative thinker (he began studying pedigree at age 11) and a voluble presence at the track, he loves nothing better than winning a big race with an overlooked horse. He took the 2002 Belmont Stakes with 70-1 longshot Sarava, and his best Preakness finish came in 2017, when Senior Investment ran third as a 30-1 shot.

“I read a book many years ago called ‘Bag the Elephant,’” he said. “It talks about your approach to life, and the gist was that if you’re a lion and you hunt mice every day, you can starve to death. But if you bag one elephant, you eat for a long time.”

Hence his fearless approach to entering races such as the Preakness.

McPeek shares his passion for bargain hunting with Swiss Skydiver’s owner, Peter Callahan, whom he regards as a father figure. He bought the filly on Callahan’s behalf for a mere $35,000 at the September 2018 yearling sale at Keeneland. Then he talked her up throughout 2019, even as an ankle injury delayed her debut until November. She started slowly in that race but rallied to win by 5½ lengths, offering a hint of what was to come.

Callahan, a former owner of the National Enquirer among other publications, named her after he glimpsed a photo of his granddaughter parachuting over the Swiss Alps. The future champion was sired by Daredevil, so the moniker fit a theme.

The filly has proved to be just as great an adventurer as the granddaughter. In an era when trainers tend to move and race their elite horses sparingly, Swiss Skydiver shows up everywhere and runs hard, no matter the circumstances. Her eight races this year put the totals of Art Collector and Authentic to shame. She’ll be under her sixth different jockey of 2020, Robby Alabarado, in the Preakness.

McPeek and Callahan clearly get a kick out of watching her go. She’s made a difficult year more bearable.

“I can’t tell you how proud of her I am,” McPeek said, adding that if Swiss Skydiver pulls off a Preakness upset followed by a planned entry in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, she would merit serious Horse of the Year consideration. “I don’t know how many horses have campaigned as much or as far or as wide, but I don’t think there’s anybody who’s even close.”

145TH PREAKNESS STAKES

At Pimlico Race Course

Saturday, 5:45 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 4:30 p.m.)

Post; Horse; Jockey; Odds

1; Excession; Sheldon Russell; 30-1

2; Mr. Big News; Gabriel Saez; 12-1

3; Art Collector; Brian Hernandez Jr.; 5-2

4; Swiss Skydiver; Robby Albarado; 6-1

5; Thousand Words; Florent Geroux; 6-1

6; Jesus' Team; Jevian Toledo; 30-1

7; NY Traffic; Horacio Karamanos; 15-1

8; Max Player; Paco Lopez; 15-1

9; Authentic; John Velazquez; 9-5

10; Pneumatic; Joe Bravo; 20-1

11; Liveyourbeastlife; Trevor McCarthy; 30-1

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