By Mike Kane
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.–With a pair of contenders, trainer Kenny McPeek said he is looking at Saturday's GI Alabama S. more as an important prize than a steppingstone to one or both of the marquee races at Churchill Downs on the first weekend of September.
McPeek plans to run Swiss Skydiver (Daredevil) and Envoutante (Uncle Mo) in the 140th Alabama and expects they will both move on to the GI Kentucky Oaks Sept. 4. It is still possible, McPeek said, he might try Swiss Skydiver in the GI Kentucky Derby, but the focus this week is on the 1 1/4-mile Alabama.
Last month at Keeneland, McPeek kept his fillies apart: Envoutante was third in the GI Central Bank Ashland S., while Swiss Skydiver was given a Derby prep against males in the GII Toyota Blue Grass S. and finished second, 3 1/4 lengths behind Art Collector (Bernardini). Since both have enough points to qualify for the Oaks–Swiss Skydiver tops the table with 350–they will face each other for the first time in the Alabama.
“There's not a lot of options. Both of them are doing good,” McPeek said. “It's a great race. Anybody that turns their nose up to the Alabama; it's just a great race.”
McPeek picked up his first Alabama with Eskimo Kisses (To Honor and Serve) in 2018 and said he is would like to win another.
“Envoutante is coming into it timing-wise really well. And Swiss Skydiver is obviously a high-level talent, but she hasn't won a Grade I yet,” McPeek said. “I didn't want to put all my eggs in one basket for the Oaks, because obviously Gamine (Into Mischief) is a very fast filly. If I've got to run against her on Oaks day is there is no guarantee that I can win that.”
The Alabama, which honors the 19th-century breeder and owner William Cottrell of Mobile, Ala., is the female companion of Saratoga's GI Runhappy Travers S., won Aug. 8 by Tiz the Law (Constitution). It has been run at the 10-furlong distance since 1917.
“I don't think either one of them will have any trouble with it” McPeek said. “Envoutante is asking for a little bit more. I think she's going to need a little more patient ride. Swiss Skydiver can dictate her own pace if you need her to. She's fast. I'd be more concerned with her getting the distance than Envoutante, but talent-wise Swiss Skydiver has shown that she is maybe a little bit better at this stage. ”
Swiss Skydiver is by far the better-known of McPeek's two fillies and has earned $677,980. He picked her out of the 2018 Keeneland September sale for what has proved to be a bargain $35,000 for longtime owner Peter Callahan. McPeek said that Callahan named the filly for a granddaughter, who did some skydiving in Switzerland. She won her debut at Churchill Downs Nov. 16 and climbed to the top of the 3-year-old filly division this year when she moved into longer races. She won the GII Gulfstream Park Oaks at 9-1 in March, the GIII Fantasy S. in May at 16-1. After those victories, she won the four-horse GII Santa Anita Oaks in June at 3-5 before the Blue Grass, where she was a 2-1 favorite in the field of 13.
“Once we got her to two turns it's been no problem for her,” McPeek said. “She just handled that really well. She's all class. She's a really strong filly to be around, too. She's gotten stronger as she's gone on.”
Envoutante, owned by the parternship of Scott Leed's Walking L Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, was acquired for $250,000 as a yearling at the 2018 Keeneland September sale. Her name means “bewitching” in French.
The July 11 Ashland was Envoutante's first try in graded stakes company and she ended up 6 3/4 lengths behind the winner, Speech (Mr. Speaker). She has had three works since, including a bullet half-mile in :47.51 over the Oklahoma training track on Aug. 8.
“I think this race is a really good setup for Envoutante,” McPeek said. “It wouldn't surprise me if she upset my other filly. She's a good filly in her own right.”
McPeek said the Ashland turned out to be a learning experience that could help with the Alabama.
“She got pinned inside most of the race and Jose Ortiz came back and said she was a little bit uncomfortable down in there. Her better races have been when she's laid on the outside and made a run. She's capable of making the pace, which she did when she broke her maiden, but I think her best race is where she came from off the pace at Churchill in the allowance race. I'm going to ask him to ride her similar to the way he did with Eskimo Kisses when we won the Alabama, a couple of seasons ago, just wait and wait and wait and wait, just get her in a nice rhythm and make one run. I think she is better that way.”
Saratoga-based Tyler Gaffalione will be aboard Swiss Skydiver in the Alabama, replacing Mike Smith, who was up for her last two races. Gaffalione rode the filly in her first two starts in November.
Swiss Skydiver has enough qualifying points to secure a berth in the Kentucky Derby and McPeek said it was possible that she might start there instead of the Oaks.
“If she won impressively, I would entertain it. We'll see,” he said. “Let's run first and talk about it later. Yeah, if she won impressively, I wouldn't rule it out completely. [Tiz the Law] is very, very good, but probably his worst race was there. And it's a funny race track. Some horses just don't like Churchill Downs. Skip Away hated it. So those things happen. Let's get through this weekend and see.”