She finished second to one of the best 3-year-old boys last month. She has not lost to a filly since the country went into lockdown. And she is an even-money, morning-line favorite to win Saturday in her Grade 1 debut at Saratoga in the $500,000 Alabama Stakes.
Yet Swiss Skydiver is still as much as a 5-1 second choice to win next month in the Kentucky Oaks.
If the colts can have their big three or four, why not the 3-year-old fillies? Swiss Skydiver is to the girls what Art Collector is to the boys. Highly respected but still widely regarded as second best in her division, in this case to the vaunted Bob Baffert filly Gamine.
“The further she goes the stronger she gets,” said trainer Ken McPeek, who will send her 1¼ miles this weekend for the first time. “Once we got her going to two turns, she really figured it out and it clicked. The Alabama is a great race. It’s a race I’ve won before, and I would love to win it again.”
He won it two years ago, when Eskimo Kisses got the 10 furlongs. Midnight Bisou did not, exposing her distance limitations the year before she found her groove and won an Eclipse Award.
This figures to be the first of two consecutive races in which Swiss Skydiver will run headlong into a worthy challenge from a Baffert filly. No, not Gamine. The 1-2 favorite overseas in Oaks futures betting is training up to their Sept. 4 date at Churchill Downs.
This weekend it will be front-running Crystal Ball (9-2), a narrow loser to Paris Lights in last month’s Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga. Since this is the final qualifying prep for the Oaks, she needs a top four finish to get off the bubble and give Baffert another option for Labor Day weekend.
“I know that Crystal Ball has got some speed,” Swiss Skydiver’s fill-in jockey Tyler Gaffalione told VSiN. “I tracked her last time in the Coaching Club.”
Oh, that’s right. Gaffalione rode Paris Lights in that stretch duel last month. He may be more familiar with Crystal Ball than he is with Swiss Skydiver, whose most recent riders Mike Smith and Brian Hernandez Jr. could not take the ride this weekend because of Saratoga’s coronavirus restrictions on outside jockeys.
“My filly is pretty tactical,” said Gaffalione, who rode Swiss Skydiver’s debut victory and one other start last year. “She’s shown a lot of speed her last few races. I’m sure (Crystal Ball) will be intent on going. I’ll talk with Kenny and work out a game plan for what we’re going to do.”
The Alabama is hardly a two-horse race. After an allowance win last month, trainer Todd Pletcher’s million-dollar Curlin filly Spice Is Nice (3-1) needs at least a top-two finish to reach the Oaks. Ridden by three-time Alabama-winner José Ortiz, a top-three result ought to get Swiss Skydiver’s stable mate Envoutante (8-1) to Churchill Downs.
“This filly is sitting on her biggest race,” McPeek said. “It’s unfortunate that I’ve got to run them against each other.”
Harvey’s Lil Goil (10-1) may be the overlooked horse among the seven entered for the Alabama. Coming off a Grade 3 turf victory for trainer Bill Mott, she will be out to make amends for her 11th-place finish to Swiss Skydiver 3½ months ago in the Fantasy at Oaklawn Park. (She and Swiss Skydiver are in my exacta box.)
Swiss Skydiver does not need any more points to get into the Oaks, not with victories already in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, the Fantasy Stakes and the Santa Anita Oaks. Thanks to her runner-up finish to Art Collector last month in the Blue Grass Stakes, she also has enough points to get into the Derby.
McPeek and owner Peter Callahan, who used to run the National Enquirer, have not ruled out a Derby start for Swiss Skydiver. But that depends in part on what happens Saturday at 5:43 p.m. EDT.
With a quick turnaround of only three weeks until Derby weekend, the script for now says that Swiss Skydiver and Envoutante are aiming for Friday, Sept. 4, not Saturday, Sept. 5.
“We’re still pointing them both to the Oaks,” McPeek said. “The timing is a little bit tricky this year. But it is what it is.”
Racing notes and opinions
Everyone said the right thing after Withers Stakes winner Max Player was transferred from trainer Linda Rice to Steve Asmussen. After a 4½-month break the Honor Code colt finished third in the Belmont Stakes and then third in the Travers. The buzz said that lead owner George Hall insisted on entering the Derby while Rice was resistant. The old-school term wisenheimer applies to the guy who said that the transfer sent Max Player from one trainer without a Derby win to another trainer without a Derby win. My dad used to call me a wisenheimer. Do the math.
Half the purse money has finally been distributed from the inaugural $20 million Saudi Cup that was run Feb. 29. The other half was supposed to go to Gary and Mary West, owners of the winner Maximum Security. Saudi racing authorities froze that money and hired a private investigator to dive in because of the FBI bust that led to illegal horse-doping charges against former trainer Jason Servis and 26 other defendants. (Servis pleaded not guilty.) Now Gary West and co-owner Coolmore say their lawyers have demanded that the Saudi Arabia Jockey Club show its cards, specifically any drug tests it took of Maximum Security. The Wests are also still in court fighting to restore their horse’s Kentucky Derby victory that was taken away in a disqualification 22 minutes after last year’s race. All this and more on the next episode of “CSI: Equine.”
Oh, yeah. Almost forgot. Maximum Security races next Saturday in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Gentlemen, start your briefcases.
The last Kentucky Derby points prep is not a win-and-you’re-in. If anything the 8½-furlong $150,000 Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park is a top-up for horses that may be just on the outside of the top 20 active contenders. Coming off a fourth-place finish two months ago in the Belmont, allowance winner Pneumatic (5-2) is the favorite in the field of eight and could get into the Derby with a win Saturday. Fourth in the Haskell, Jesús’ Team (3-1) is second on the morning line. My money will be on front-running Arkaan (9-2), a 2-for-2 colt that is graduating from a six-length allowance victory at Delaware Park. Not to be confused with the similarly named, big-money race every January at Gulfstream Park, this Pegasus is Saturday at 5:12 p.m. EDT.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. On the current episode, legendary turf writer Steve Haskin discusses the difficulty in handicapping next month’s Kentucky Derby, jockey Tyler Gaffalione talks about his role as a substitute rider on Swiss Skydiver in the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, and VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo handicaps weekend races. The RFRP is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.