Kentucky Oaks beckons for Alabama heroine Swiss Skydiver

Kenny McPeekSwiss Skydiver was the 23/20 (+115) favorite in the 140th Alabama Stakes for fillies and mares at Saratoga on August 15 and triumphed in the style of one starting at a much shorter price. Now she heads firmly for the Kentucky Oaks and a clash with Gamine on September 4 at Churchill Downs.

In the Alabama, Swiss Skydiver left her rivals for dead on the final turn and was casually surveying her surroundings as she cantered across the wire under Tyler Gaffalione. He eased her when he knew she was not going to be caught, the winning distance of three and a half lengths does not accurately indicate her superiority.

Saddled by Kenny McPeek, the red and blue silks of Peter Callahan were as spotless as she was after the race. This daughter of Daredevil set out as a shining chestnut and finished looking immaculate with her head held high. She was not the most impressive filly in the parade ring, many of her opponents were taller and looked more powerfully built.

In the final stages of this one and a quarter mile contest it was a very different story, her pursuers were all rendered a ghostly gray by a head to hoof covering of kickback. The more determined fillies had their heads bowed low and their ears pinned back as they fought out the battle for the minor placings.

It was Brad Cox’s 10.6/1 shot Bonny South who took second under Irad Ortiz Jnr closely followed by the more popular 5/1 prospect Harvey’s Lil Goil for Bill Mott. Swiss Skydiver’s stablemate Envoutante finished fourth beaten almost 11 lengths with Bob Baffert’s Crystal Ball a further 15 lengths back in fifth.

The second favorite in the Alabama, Todd Pletcher’s Spice Is Nice was disappointing. She looked great in the preliminaries and had the air of a filly who was happy to go work on the racetrack but never looked remotely dangerous. She was positioned mid pack by John Velazquez and found nothing when asked for an effort and finished with only Fire Coral behind her.

Spice Is Nice had been beaten by Swiss Skydiver in late March in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, finishing ten lengths behind her in fifth. It was not the result the betting had suggested. Swiss Skydiver started at 9/1 on that day whilst Spice Is Nice was the second favorite at 11/5. The favorite was Saffie Joseph’s Tonalist’s Shape who failed to fire and was unplaced.

The Alabama went well from flagfall for Swiss Skydiver. She broke swiftly from gate five and soon took the second spot behind the more favorably drawn Crystal Ball who was pushed forward by Javier Castellano from stall three. Crystal Ball had just missed out, beaten a head in the grade one Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratago last time out a month ago and looked a potential danger on paper. Having set a decent but not suicidal gallop, Crystal Ball could not keep up with Swiss Skydiver after she headed her a quarter of a mile from home. She started treading water and finished 25 lengths behind the winner.

Callahan and McPeek had a number of options with Swiss Skydiver. The Kentucky Derby was one of them as her second place in the grade two Toyota Blue Grass Stakes last time out gained valuable qualifying points. Yes, fillies can contest the Run for the Roses too but very few choose to take on the colts in their classic season and get the necessary points.

Swiss Skydiver was entered in the Kentucky Derby after her surprising progress this season. Bred by Winstar Farms out of a Johannesburg mare, she was purchased for a mere $35,000 as a yearling and has exceeded all expectations. She started as a 16/1 long shot in the Fantasy Stakes in May at Oaklawn Park and won by two and a half lengths under Brian Hernandez Jr, beating the odds-on favorite, Richard Baltas’ Venetian Harbor into second. That grade three contest was run over a mile and half a furlong.

By early June bettors recognized her ability and sent her off as the heavy favorite in the grade two Santa Anita Oaks run over the same distance. She won easily by four lengths under Mike Smith beating Michael McCarthy’s Speech who is no slouch. Speech went on to win the grade one Ashland Stakes at Keeneland in July next time out, beating the favorite, the perennially popular Venetian Harbor, three lengths.

McPeek was not at all happy with the ride Mike Smith gave Swiss Skydiver in the Blue Grass at Keeneland in July. He had strong views on the appropriate pace for the first half mile and believes Smith wrecked her chances by going too fast. She was beaten three and a half lengths by Thomas Drury’s promising colt, Art Collector who is one of very few potential runners in the Kentucky Derby betting currently offered at a single figure price.

Blaming his jockey for that defeat he believes Swiss Skydiver could reverse the placings with Art Collector if ridden correctly but McPeek has a lot of respect for Tiz The Law. The decision has been made to skip the colts and racing fans are looking forward to seeing Swiss Skydiver take on Baffert’s top filly Gamine in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on September 4.

Gamine romped to victory in the Longines Test Stakes, a grade one contest for three-year-old fillies run over seven furlongs at Saratoga on August 8. She beat Venetian Harbor seven lengths and crossed the wire in a manner that confirmed a greater distance would not be an issue. Gamine had already proved her proficiency over a mile, demolishing the opposition in the Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park in late June. She led from flagfall and powered clear of the pack a quarter of a mile from home winning by almost 20 lengths. Gamine won her maiden special weight in May impressively too but was later disqualified after failing a drugs test.

The Baffert barn has been plagued by more drug related problems than usual this season. There is history on the creative deployment of medication, a trait associated with many successful trainers in continents across the globe. Baffert did not break any rules when he decided to give a thyroid drug to all his horses in 2011. After seven horses died the drug was no longer routinely administered. Gamine’s loss was a minor one but top class contests have been forfeited thanks to the rigorous testing program this year.

Gamine is the heavy favorite in the Kentucky Oaks betting with Swiss Skydiver taking the second spot at 4/1 but they may not finish in that order.