By Lynne Snierson
Robby Albarado might be the replacement rider on Swiss Skydiver in Saturday’s $1 million Preakness (G1), but he’s had more than his share of moments on center stage.
Still, it’s been a long time, and rugged journey back, since winning in the international spotlight.
Albarado sustained two skull fractures, one in 2008 and another the following year. He’s had a host of other serious injuries he’s recovered from, and hasn’t yet won a graded stakes race in 2020. In 2019, his best was a Grade 3 win. He last won a top-level race three years ago.
“Robby’s been a guy who has ridden for me,’’ said Kenny McPeek, who trains Swiss Skydiver and chose Albarado to replace Tyler Gaffalione (riding at Keeneland). “I think he’s just lacking an outfit right now. He’s been in this game and won this race.”
A twist of fate in this topsy-turvy racing season put him in the picture for McPeek. With the COVID-19 pandemic re-arranging the racing schedule, and jockeys deciding to stay at their home track for business and health concerns, Albarado finds himself with a chance to win a second Preakness – aboard a filly, no less.
Gaffalione, who rode Swiss Skydiver in her last two races, wasn’t available because McPeek made the last-minute decision to go in the Preakness (rather than a race at Keeneland), while Gaffalione had committed to ride at Keeneland.
McPeek is more than fine with Albarado, one of several riders to climb aboard his filly and have success.
“He rode a horse for me in this race; he rode Racecar Rhapsody fourth in 2008. He’s a big-game rider,’’ said McPeek. “I think he can get it done. Look, she’s shown she doesn’t need a particular rider. Everybody’s ridden her all year. Paco Lopez won on her, Mike Smith won on her, (Brian) Hernandez won on her, Gaffalione won on her. She’s not a horse that needs her own rider.”
Or her own racetrack. In 10 career starts (5-3-1) including a win in the Alabama (G1), and a pair of seconds, one to Art Collector in the Blue Grass (G2) and the other to Shedaresthedevil in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), Swiss Skydiver has competed at eight different tracks.
“She’s so easy to work with, so easy. I got on her Wednesday (Sept. 30) morning (for a gallop over the sloppy track) and I haven’t gotten on horses in the mornings, either to gallop or jog, in years. She’s that easy that I can even gallop around there,” said Albarado.
“She went over the track really well. She’s a professional and has got a lot of class to her. She’s done really well since she’s been here. I think Pimlico is a track that might suit her. She’s got tactical speed. She turns well around these turns, which are sharper than the turns at Churchill. I’m looking forward to a good trip, and I think she’ll display a lot of her talent.”
Albarado has ridden more than 5,200 winners with nearly $220 million in purses, so he’s got a pretty good read on talented horses. Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Authentic is the 9-5 morning-line favorite, with Art Collector the second choice at 5-2; Swiss Skydiver is 6-1.
Swiss Skydiver drew the No. 4 post in the field off 11 in her second start against males. She’s the first filly start in the Preakness since Ria Antonia finished 19th and last in 2014. Five fillies have won the Preakness, most recently Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
“I hope this is her year. Size wise, she’s as big as the boys. She makes her presence known, let’s say. I’m just hoping for a good trip,’’ said Albarado. “There’s a lot of speed in the race so maybe we’ll sit off of it and come home nicely. Ideally, I’d really like to sit right off the pace, maybe lay third or fourth. Hopefully, they’ll go quick enough up front where we can be in contention turning for home and then hopefully, round it out. We’re hoping the speed comes back by itself and gives us a better chance.”
Lynne Snierson, a former director of communications at Arlington Park and Rockingham Park, currently is a freelance writer and racing publicist. She covered thoroughbred racing as an award-winning sportswriter for newspapers In Boston, Miami, and St. Louis. She lives in New Hampshire. Secretariat remains her all-time favorite horse.