Nicholas Godfrey on the Preakness

Can a girl beat the boys in The Run for the Black-Eyed Susans at Pimlico on Saturday?

  • Friday 02 October
  • Blog
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So we’ve heard plenty about the record of fillies and mares in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe ahead of Enable's hat-trick bid in Paris.

But what about female horses in the US Triple Crown? With leading three-year-old filly Swiss Skydiver set to take on Kentucky Derby winner Authentic in Saturday’s rescheduled Preakness Stakes, it is a question worth asking.

Generally speaking, even among older horses, American trainers are wary indeed of running the girls against the boys and in the modern era, despite the 5lb sex allowance, only rarely have they been asked to take on their male counterparts – ironic, as a filly (Ruthless) won the 1867 Belmont, the very first Triple Crown race.

Watch the Preakness Stakes from Pimlico live on Stateside on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Saturday 3rd October from 8.45pm.

Though this year’s revised programme sets a different task, it remains a fact that even going all the way back, female winners are thin on the ground in US Triple Crown races. Only 11 altogether; two since the turn of the century and only four since the war.

Taking it race-by-race, only three fillies – Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980) and Winning Colors (1988) – have won from 40 to have contested the Kentucky Derby; the last two are the only females to have run in all three legs of the Triple Crown.

Eight Belles broke down fatally after coming second to Big Brown in 2008, a tragedy that may have influenced those coming after, acting as a deterrent to potential fillies in America’s most celebrated race. Also, the Kentucky Oaks has grown in stature.

Similarly, only three females have ever won the Belmont Stakes, where in 2007 Rags To Riches became the first filly for 102 years to claim the New York Classic after a fierce stretch battle with Preakness winner Curlin. Only 22 fillies have run, the vast majority in days of yore.

On the plus for Swiss Skydiver, the form book of history offers slightly more hope for her chances against ten males in the 145th running of the Preakness, the final leg of the Triple Crown in this coronavirus-blighted season.

Runner-up in the Kentucky Oaks a month ago, she is bidding to become sixth filly to win following Flocarline (1903), Whimsical (1906), Rhine Maiden (1915), Nellie Morse (1924) and Rachel Alexandra (2009), who followed her stunning Kentucky Oaks triumph by lowering the colours of Derby winner Mine That Bird in a memorable performance two weeks later.

Yet while a total of 54 fillies have taken part in the Preakness, only five have done so since the war and only three in the last 30 years. Besides Rachel Alexandra, the others were Excellent Meeting, pulled up in 1999, and promoted Breeders’ Cup winner Ria Antonia, last of ten behind California Chrome in  2014.

Then again, Swiss Skydiver’s pioneering trainer Kenny McPeek has never been afraid of an unconventional approach. A few years before transatlantic sorties became second nature to Wesley Ward, McPeek saddled Hard Buck to finish second to Doyen in the 2004 King George.

He’s had runners at the royal meeting as well – Casper’s Touch was third in the Chesham under Kieren Fallon – and he brought Kentucky Oaks runner-up Daddys Lil Darling to Epsom to run in the Oaks three years ago.

“They should be worried,” McPeek said at the time. “We are not coming for the free pens and lunch.”

Sadly, that was all he got: spooked by thunder and lightning, the filly bolted before the start and unseated Olivier Peslier. She never got to run at Epsom.

Undeterred by such unfortunate happenstance, McPeek also considered running Swiss Skydiver in both the 1,000 Guineas (on English turf) and Kentucky Derby (on US dirt), in which context the Preakness starts to look a mere bagatelle.

He actually did run the filly against colts in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, where she was easily handled by Preakness rival Art Collector; she came back with an impressive G1 victory at Saratoga before another sound effort in the Kentucky Oaks.

What is more, betting suggests Swiss Skydiver has rather more chance than the trainer’s only previous winner of a Triple Crown race, the 70-1 shot Sarava with whom he landed the Belmont in 2002.

McPeek is making confident noises; mind you, he usually does. “I know she will make the distance without any problem,” says the trainer.

“I think she will like that racetrack. Of course, she has raced everywhere and whatever racetrack she has raced over she has handled great.”

Explaining why he decided to go for the Preakness, the trainer adds: “It was a tough call between racing against straight three-year-olds or older fillies and mares or turf, which was briefly thought about.

“My preference would have been if they wrote a race back like the Alabama back for this week but that doesn’t exist; there are no three-year-old filly Grade 1s. She gets a little bit of weight off and she’s continuing to do good.”

A victory against the boys would certainly enhance Swiss Skydiver’s credentials for year-end honours. “I think if she wins a race like this you’ve got to include her possible Horse of the Year,” says McPeek. “She’s danced every dance and she’s been hickory and she has entertained the fan base like probably no filly in years. I think it’s a chance to make history.”

Footnote (1): What’s in a name?

Two months after trainer Kenny McPeek paid $35,000 for the filly at the 2018 Keeneland September yearling sale, owner Peter Callahan received a video showing his 20-year-old granddaughter Callie making a parachute jump over the Swiss Alps.

Callie, who did the jump in tandem with an instructor, was studying in Europe at the time. Who better to name a daughter of Daredevil after than the owner’s very own Swiss skydiver?

Footnote (2): Crowds not the only thing missing…

There won’t be any mass drunken rendition of the state hymn ‘Maryland, My Maryland’ either – and not just because there won’t be any mass drunken crowd on hand at a behind-closed-doors Preakness.

Like Kentucky Derby anthem ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ – bugled rather than sung at Churchill Downs four weeks ago – ‘Maryland, My Maryland’ carries problematic overtones in the modern era. Especially, it hardly need be said, amid worldwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations and civil unrest in the States following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

The poem from which the song’s lyrics are derived was written in 1861 by James Ryder Randall “to spur Maryland to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy”, according to the Blood-Horse.

“Northern scum” is one memorable epithet contained therein, while Abraham Lincoln is described as a “despot” – though, admittedly, not in the stanza they belt out at Pimlico.

Be that as it may, amid moves from Baltimore legislators to remove official status as Maryland’s state song, it has been ditched by the Maryland Jockey Club for 2020, while the G2 event formerly known as the Dixie Stakes, the state’s oldest stakes race, reverts to its original title as the Dinner Party Stakes. The first Dinner Party Stakes in 1870 was won by none other than Preakness himself.

Watch the Preakness Stakes from Pimlico live on Stateside on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Saturday 3rd October from 8.45pm.

Nicholas Godfrey on the Preakness
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