Trainer Kenny McPeek must have a world of confidence in Swiss Skydiver. Why else would he have so strongly considered sending the young filly overseas for her turf debut and a date in the 1000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket?
As it turns out, the daughter of Daredevil will not make the trip for the English classic on June 7. Coronavirus-related travel issues, as well as a reduction in purse, made the trip less attractive than in a normal year. Instead, McPeek found a more conventional but still difficult spot for his new stable star in Saturday’s Santa Anita Oaks (G2).
A key race in its own right, the $200,000 Oaks is also California's top qualifying race for the Kentucky Oaks which will run this year on Friday, Sept. 4.
The winning filly on Saturday will earn 100 points, all but ensuring a place in the Kentucky Oaks starting gate. Not that Swiss Skydiver needs much help in that department, as she is the current leader of the points race with 210, more than double that of the second horse on the leaderboard. All this from a 3-year-old that few even heard of just a few months ago.
Bred by WinStar Farm, the chestnut filly was picked out by McPeek and purchased for owner Peter Callahan for the bargain price of $35,000 at the 2018 Keeneland September yearling sale. Now, just six starts into her budding career, Swiss Skydiver has already earned well more than ten times that, and looks to be on the verge of even bigger things in the near future.
While she demonstrated promise in her first four races, which included a first-out win at Churchill Downs last November, it was not until the end of March when she broke out in a big way.
In search of her second career victory, Swiss Skydiver was sent off at odds of 9-1 in the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2). Facing a large field, with several highly regarded fillies, the McPeek trainee went right to the early lead under jockey Paco Lopez and proceeded to lead the 11 others on a merry chase.
Crossing the finish line more than three lengths clear of her nearest competition, Swiss Skydiver suddenly became a horse to look out for on the road to the Kentucky Oaks. But was she truly a top contender? Most of those who wagered on the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park on May 1 did not think so.
The Fantasy may have been listed as a Grade 3, but the collection of fillies it attracted in 2020 looked much closer to Grade 1 in quality. The field of 14 included last year’s juvenile filly champion, British Idiom, as well as the California hotshot Venetian Harbor.
Despite her sharp victory in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, it was assumed the successful front-running tactics of Swiss Skydiver would be hard to repeat against this kind of competition.
That assumption was only partly correct, in that she didn’t go right to the lead like she had done at Gulfstream. Rather, it was the heavy favorite, Venetian Harbor, who sprinted out to a clear early advantage. Largely ignored at the windows at 16-1, Swiss Skydiver was content to sit patiently in second as the chalk carved out fast early fractions.
Ridden by Brian Hernandez, Jr. in this one, she waited for several furlongs before making her move. When the field neared the turn for home, Swiss Skydiver turned up the heat on the favorite, while the rest of the field could no longer keep up with the top two talented fillies.
The battle was joined, but it was the highly regarded winner of the Las Virgenes who was the first to blink. Proving that she was much more than a one-dimensional speed horse, Swiss Skydiver drew clear late to win going away by 2 ½ lengths.
Suggestive of how superior they were over the dozen other well thought of fillies in the Fantasy, Venetian Harbor finished more than 10 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher Shedaresthedevil. The fast final time of 1:42 for the 8 ½ furlongs was further proof of the quality of performance turned in by Swiss Skydiver.
Soon after the Fantasy victory, McPeek announced that he was considering the 1000 Guineas for his filly. It would have been highly unorthodox for a top Kentucky Oaks contender to run over European turf, but indicative of how much he thinks about his streaking filly.
McPeek has had some previous success in England before, having trained Hard Buck to finish second in the prestigious King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot in 2004. But for now his plans to send Swiss Skydiver to a big race overseas will have to wait.
On Saturday, Swiss Skydiver will face a different test. This time, as the leader of the division, she will be the one everyone is looking to beat.
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