Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 4, 2020

Making The Most Of An Unexpected Opportunity

To longtime horse racing fans, the name no doubt rang a bell. As the horses and jockeys in the field of eleven for Saturday’s long-delayed running of the Preakness Stakes were introduced during the post parade, the rider on Swiss Skydiver, the sole filly in the race, surely caused some fans to wonder aloud, “where has he been?” For Robby Albarado, the answer of late would have been riding whatever mounts he could find at little, largely forgotten tracks, like Turfway Park and Indiana Grand. Both are located deep in horse country, little more than ninety minute drives from Churchill Downs. But they are more like ninety light years from the glitz and glory of the Triple Crown that in normal years begins at Churchill in May before continuing on to the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, or any of the other races that comprise what little is left of big-time thoroughbred racing in the United States.

Still, the familiarity of Albarado’s name was proof of another, earlier phase in the career of the 47-year-old veteran jockey. He was born in Louisiana to a racing family, his father riding at little tracks in the deep south. Albarado started riding at a young age and was just sixteen when he scored his first professional victory, guiding a long-forgotten horse named One Little Point around the one-mile oval at Evangeline Downs in Opelousas, Louisiana. He could have followed the path of so many in his chosen profession, eking out a living by moving from one small track to another as the season progressed, but his talent started to be recognized by trainers and owners. He won his first graded stakes race in 1995, five years after turning pro, and his first Grade I event three years later, capturing the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs aboard Joyeux Danseur.

But later in 1998 he suffered the first in a series of serious injuries that have repeatedly threatened his career. Riding accidents resulted in skull fractures both that season and the next, requiring major surgery. Over the years since there have been broken bones, dislocated joints, and a host of lesser issues that cost Albarado long stretches of time. Yet like so many others in an athletic profession that is far more dangerous than fans like to admit, he was always eager to get back up on his next mount as soon as he was able.

In 2007 trainer Steve Asmussen gave Albarado the mount on Curlin, a promising three-year-old who had gone unraced at age two and been sold to new owners after a dominating maiden win at Gulfstream Park. Albarado rode Curlin into thoroughbred history, coming back to win the Preakness after running third in the Derby, then capturing the Breeders Cup Classic that fall. Curlin was named 2007 Horse of the Year, then repeated the feat in 2008 after continuing to campaign, with Albarado aboard, as a four-year-old. By then time he was retired to stud, Curlin had earned more than $10.5 million, a record amount at that time for thoroughbred career winnings.

Albarado has lost none of his desire and little of his ability in the years since, as attested by a long list of wins. But the injuries also continued to pile up. Most notably, in 2011 he was forced to relinquish the reins of Animal Kingdom shortly before the Derby, only to watch as replacement rider John Velazquez guided Albarado’s former mount to victory and a blanket of roses. Little by little, Albarado slid down the jockey rankings, and the calls from leading trainers to ride the top horses in the sport’s premier events grew fewer and fewer.

Then along came 2020, and like so many other sports horse racing saw its calendar upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Preakness was moved from the third Saturday in May to the first weekend in October, becoming not the second Triple Crown race but the last. When Peter Callahan, the owner of Swiss Skydiver opted to have the filly compete against ten colts, trainer Ken McPeek had to find a jockey. The filly’s regular rider, Tyler Gaffalione, was committed to ride at Keeneland on the same day as the rescheduled Preakness. McPeek first approached Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who had guided Swiss Skydiver to a June victory in the Santa Anita Oaks. But Smith was also unavailable, so the trainer turned to his third choice, knowing that Albarado had ridden horses in his stable to the winner’s circle in the past.

So it was that three years after his last victory in a Grade I stakes race, Albarado eased Swiss Skydiver into the number four stall of Pimlico’s starting gate at about quarter to six Saturday afternoon. The filly sprang from the gate and was among the leaders as the field raced by the virtually empty stands for the first time. Albarado guided his horse to the rail, and that’s where Swiss Skydiver stayed, always within two or three lengths of the lead, as the horses moved to the back stretch and favorite Authentic rode to the front. Then, midway to the far turn, Albarado shifted out one lane and raced between horses, positioning himself just behind Authentic. He then drove Swiss Skydiver back to the rail, inside of the leader and with clear running room ahead. “An early move now,” exclaimed announcer Larry Collmus, “Swiss Skydiver has come through on the inside of Authentic! And the two of them are now matching strides as they race for the far turn!”

By the time they came around that turn and began the final sprint down the home stretch, Swiss Skydiver had moved in front. But Authentic and Velazquez weren’t quitting. The favorite and the filly pulled away from the rest of the field, racing neck and neck to the wire. Velazquez and his mount did their best to overtake Swiss Skydiver, but Albarado kept his horse in front, crossing the wire in first place by a head. Swiss Skydiver had come from behind to be just the sixth filly to win the Preakness, and the first since Rachel Alexandra in 2009. And Robby Albarado, he had come from out of nowhere as well, all the way back to the peak of his sport.

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