Betting in Nevada on the $1 million Preakness Stakes was slow. “Very slow” in the words of one sportsbook. It was that way all over the country.
But if there was disinterest in the last race of the Triple Crown because it was on the same day as college football and NFL drama and a presidential hospitalization – and not in the spring where it belongs – shame on those who chose not to break away for two minutes to tune in Saturday afternoon. They missed a thriller.
In a stretch duel that was reminiscent of some of the best in the race’s rich history, the filly Swiss Skydiver (11-1) defied all those like me who said she did not belong in the company of these boys. She stared down Kentucky Derby winner Authentic (3-2) in a stretch duel that had Sunday Silence and Easy Goer written all over it.
And damned if she didn’t win by a neck.
Pouncing on slow early fractions, substitute jockey Robby Albarado seized the initiative with an inside move on the backstretch, drew even with Authentic in the turn and battled him the rest of the way to win the 145th running of what is now a $1 million race – and the first to feature 3½-year-olds.
“It was a genius move by Robby coming up the fence,” said winning trainer Kenny McPeek, whose only other classic victory was with 70-1 Sarava in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. “He saw a hole and went right at it. It felt like she took him there. If he waited she would take him there.”
Swiss Skydiver thus became the sixth filly ever to win the race, the first since Rachel Alexandra in 2009 and only the second since World War I.
So the girl that could not beat the boys in the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes and could not win the Kentucky Oaks and seemed doomed to second-itis in races where she did not have her way as she did in winning the Grade 1 Alabama managed to break through in her biggest test yet. It means she could go against the boys all over again next month, because an invitation to the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic came with Saturday’s victory.
A decision on that or the Distaff or whatever will wait until the celebration has worn off. For now praise is being heaped on Albarado, who was not even supposed to be at Pimlico.
“I’m just proud of Robby,” McPeek said. “We had to call him in at the last minute.”
Winner of the 2007 Preakness on Curlin, Albarado got the ride only because regular jockey Tyler Gaffalione was already committed to assignments at Keeneland by the time McPeek and owner Peter Callahan decided last Sunday to enter the Preakness.
Albarado, meanwhile, might have reached a turning point in his career and in his life. In the early ’10s he faced two cases of assault against women – one his then wife and the other a girlfriend. In the first case the charges were dropped; in the other his conviction was overturned on appeal. His reputation scarred, good rides dried up for Albarado, who had not won a race in the Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup in the last nine years.
“I owe it all to Kenny,” Albarado said, his voice cracking in the post-race news conference. “He believes in me still. People started thinking I couldn’t do it anymore, but Kenny was there.”
Albarado saw to it that Swiss Skydiver broke sharply. As they went past the empty grandstand the first time, they settled behind stablemates Authentic and Thousand Words (7-1). The so-called “other” Bob Baffert horse, Thousand Words wore blinkers for the first time in three races and assumed the early lead with Authentic right there with him. But they were hardly blazing, going the first quarter-mile in 24.48 seconds and the first half-mile in 47.65.
“I thought I was going to be on the lead,” Baffert said, referring to Authentic and jockey John Velázquez. “Johnny said that it didn’t work out, and he was rating him today. He doesn’t like rating. He wants to go fast. I saw he wasn’t on the lead, and he was struggling a little bit.”
With Art Collector (2-1) and Pneumatic (11-1) to his right, Albarado decided why not go and catch Authentic?
“I had an opportunity, a split second, to take advantage of the rail because Johnny was sitting off the fence there,” Albarado told NBC. “I made a conscious decision on the back side. It’s give or take now. Do I make that move now? Or do I wait to see if they come back to me?’ I said let me try and make this Jerry Bailey move and win.”
Bailey is the Hall of Fame jockey who was part of the NBC telecast, a rider who was not afraid to pounce without notice. With Thousand Words giving ground, Albarado scrubbed Swiss Skydiver on an inside path past Authentic. Velázquez did not let her get away, so he and Albarado both picked up steam.
The duel was on.
Swiss Skydiver maintained her position on the inside and got left-handed urging from Albarado. As he did in the Derby, Velázquez went to his left hand to get more out of Authentic, maybe even trying to create an authoritative breeze of intimidation over the filly’s back.
With Swiss Skydiver refusing to budge, Velázquez switched his crop to the right hand in the final 100 yards to try and rub shoulders, but the race was over. They battled through closing fractions of 1:11.24, 1:34.74 to a final time of 1:53.28 for the 9½ furlongs.
“By the backstretch I tried to open up,” said Velázquez, now 0-for-10 in the only Triple Crown race that is not on his Hall of Fame résumé of victories. “(Authentic) just stood there, and Swiss Skydiver came to him. I tried to get him rolling again, but he just stayed with that other horse from the half-mile pole to the wire.”
After finishing third in last month’s Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga, Jesús’ Team (40-1) liked his new bar shoes enough to close into a third-place finish 10 lengths behind Swiss Skydiver. Art Collector (2-1) wilted to fourth, missing third by a head.
The lack of interest in Las Vegas was mirrored in the all-sources handle for the Preakness. The win, place and show pools totaled $9,835,311, a 55 percent drop from last year and its lowest point in 20 years.
The regular edition of Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. As a bonus on the latest Preakness episode, Racing Post’s Scott Burton is in Paris to preview Sunday’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. The RFRP is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts, and it is sponsored by 1/ST BET.