Gettin’ Lucky in Kentucky: McPeek, Callahan Enjoying the Ride with Swiss Skydiver
By Lynne Snierson
A Thoroughbred Experience. That’s the pitch to potential renters of an historic breeding shed where three Kentucky Derby winners were conceived, which has been converted to a vacation rental cottage on Sherri and Ken McPeek’s Magdalena Farm in Lexington.
Trainer McPeek and owner Peter Callahan have had quite the experience with Swiss Skydiver in the Bluegrass State. Now they’re back for much more.
Callahan, the 78-year-old owner and former media magnate, has been with his trainer for quite a while and knows that McPeek will take a chance on a yearling he finds in the final books at the Keeneland September Sale.
When in 2018 McPeek spied a WinStar Farms-bred chestnut daughter of Grade 1 winner Daredevil out of a mare by Johannesburg [(a multiple Group 1 winner in Europe prior to taking the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1)], Callahan pulled out his checkbook.
They figured she’d sell for $50,000, but then they were thrilled when able to nab her for only $35,000.
Named Swiss Skydiver (more on that later), the filly has gone on to win multiple graded stakes, including the Alabama (G1) by 3 ½ lengths on Aug. 15 at Saratoga Race Course. Her $275,000 share of the winner’s purse pushed her 2020 bankroll to $901,820, fifth in North America.
“She’s a really good filly. Really, really good,” said McPeek. “I remember my dad telling me, ‘You need to learn how to train horses like Wayne Lukas.’ And I said, ‘Bulls#*t. You need to buy me horses like Wayne Lukas trains.’ If you don’t have any good horses, it’s hard to train good horses.
“What I’ve done is to learn how to buy them over the years because I haven’t always had the big budgets. I had to get really good at buying them so I could compete. That’s what we do and it’s worked out okay”
McPeek, a 1984 University of Kentucky graduate who took out his trainer’s license the following year, is bringing Swiss Skydiver and her record of 5-2-1 from nine starts to Churchill Downs as the likely favorite for the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks (G1) on Sept. 4.
Mmmm, not so fast.
Another date with the boys in the Kentucky Derby (G1) might be ahead for Swiss Skydiver, who finished a very respectable second to Derby hopeful Art Collector in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) on July 11.
“Nothing is set in stone yet. At this point I would say that we’re going to run in the Oaks. But a lot can happen. Horses check out [of the Derby], or there is a significant scratch. So, we’ll see. We’re not going to completely rule the Derby out,” McPeek allowed.
Tyler Gaffalione was aboard for the Alabama win and he has the return assignment for a start in the Oaks. Hall of Famer Mike Smith was in the irons for her score in the Santa Anita Oaks (G2) on June 6 and Brian Hernandez, Jr. was her partner when they won the Fantasy Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn on May 1, the original date for the Kentucky Oaks before the COVID-19 pandemic rejiggered racing’s schedule.
Swiss Skydiver’s Alabama win qualified her for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) in November at Keeneland, and a big effort in either the Oaks or the Derby would logically put the Preakness (G1) on Oct. 3 or the Grade 1 Spinster at Keeneland that same weekend into the picture.
“It just seemed to me like it came together that way,” said McPeek. “Peter and I talked about it and then we scheduled Tyler for a three-race commitment, and he is all for that.”
McPeek has an impressive roll call of graded stakes races won, including the 2002 Belmont (G1) with Sarava. Somehow, though, it seems he’s got a special relationship with the fillies, and Swiss Skydiver is the latest in an All-Star lineup that includes Grade 1 winners Eskimo Kisses (2018 Alabama), Restless Rider (2018 Darley Alcibiades), Daddy’s Lil Darling (2017 American Oaks), Rosalind (2014 Ashland), and Pure Fun (2012 Starlet) along with the formidable multimillionaire Take Charge Lady (2003 and 2002 Spinster; 2002 Ashland).
Daddy’s Little Darling and Take Charge Lady both ran second in the Oaks and McPeek is still seeking his first victory in the race knowns as “The Lillies for the Fillies” after missing the winner’s circle nine times before.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to win a lot of the 2-year-old races but have been kind of unlucky in those 3-year-old races,” said McPeek, who came closest to Kentucky Derby glory in 1995 when Tejano Run was the runner-up. “I’ve had a couple of fillies that I thought could have and should have won the Oaks, and that one horse ran big there that day.”
For a Kentucky guy nothing is bigger or better than winning at Churchill Downs and the zenith would be to capture the Derby and/or the Oaks.
“In the Derby I’ve knocked on the door to some extent,” he said. “These are great races, and you always love winning at home. It would be a big day. Between me and Dale [Romans] it’s a local thing for us.”
Swiss Skydiver is scheduled to breeze at Churchill on Friday or Saturday. Either way, or in either race, she’s poised to enter her name into lore.
As for her name, just how did the daughter of Daredevil come to be called Swiss Skydiver?
It’s a nod to the oldest of Callahan’s seven grandchildren, Callahan “Callie” Rasnake, who in November 2018 sent her granddad a heart-stopping video of herself parachuting out of an airplane flying over the Swiss Alps.
Swiss Skydiver is close to Callahan’s heart for another reason.
Though he’s been in the business for 30 years and was the co-breeder for 2017 Pacific Classic (G1) winner Collected, he’d only won two other stakes races since 2000 as an owner, both Grade 3 events. In addition to Swiss Skydiver’s Grade 1 Alabama score, she’s brought home two Grade 3 trophies by herself plus another from a Grade 2 race.
Hardware from the Kentucky Oaks, or maybe the Kentucky Derby, would fit nicely in the trophy cases.
“Fingers are crossed,” said McPeek. “She’s really good.”