September 27, 2020

Swiss Skydiver extends points lead in Santa Anita Oaks; Four Graces passes test in Dogwood

Swiss Skydiver
Swiss Skydiver winning the Santa Anita Oaks (Benoit Photo)

Already comfortably clear in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) points standings as the winner of the Fantasy (G3) and Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), Swiss Skydiver padded her total with a front-running romp in Saturday’s $196,000 Santa Anita Oaks (G2).

Ordinarily no filly would have contested all three races, which in a normal year serve as major preps nearing the countdown to the Kentucky Oaks. But the pandemic’s elongation of the schedule leading up to the first Friday in September, rather than May, is giving Swiss Skydiver the chance to run up the score.

Trainer Ken McPeek had thought about shipping the Peter Callahan colorbearer even further afield, to England for Sunday’s 1000 Guineas (G1). But logistics in the COVID-19 era would have been challenging, so McPeek sent her west to give her something to do.

While the Santa Anita Oaks was worth 100 points to the winner, like her past two victories, Swiss Skydiver didn’t face the same degree of opposition. She also enjoyed newfound respect from the betting public that sent her off as the 3-5 favorite, unlike her 9-1 odds at Gulfstream and 16-1 price at Oaklawn last out.

Her new rider, Hall of Famer Mike Smith, kept it simple and let her dictate terms through fractions of :22.92, :46.55, and 1:10.82. Then Swiss Skydiver bid the chasing Merneith adieu and drew off by four lengths, finishing 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.20.

Speech, the 2-1 second choice, stayed on with good resolve as best of the rest by 7 1/4 lengths. Merneith crossed the wire third, and her Bob Baffert stablemate, Regal Beauty, was last of the quartet throughout. Smiling Shirlee was scratched.

“She’s good, just keeps getting better too,” McPeek said of Swiss Skydiver. “I was reluctant to bring her, we thought maybe we ought to wait for the Ashland ([G1] at Keeneland’s ad hoc July meeting) with a short field and everything.

“She’s easy to be around; she loves to run. They asked me to bring her vet records, (and) I said, ‘There aren’t any!

“They went 22 and change early, which kind of surprised me, but she’s got it in her.  She’s getting better too, I think.”

Smith, who later guided Honor A. P. to a convincing tally in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), was complimentary as well.

“When a horse puts their ears forward like that, that means there usually is something left in the tank,” Smith said. “They are kind of taking a breather, looking at things. When I tightened the reins up, she really accelerated. I kept busy until the eighth pole and really, she was on cruise control after that. She’s an extremely talented filly.”

All runners earned Oaks points. Swiss Skydiver now brandishes 310 points, Speech added 40 points for a total of 60, and recent maiden winners Merneith (20 points) and Regal Beauty (10) opened their accounts.

Swiss Skydiver was bred by WinStar Farm and purchased for just $35,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. Her scorecard stands at 7-4-1-1, $557,980, reflecting a third in the Rachel Alexandra (G2) before she began her three-race winning streak. The Daredevil filly was produced by Expo Gold, a daughter of Johannesburg.

Saturday’s other Kentucky Oaks scoring race, the $100,000 Dogwood (G3) at Churchill Downs, was also won on the front end – but in a more contentious manner by stakes debutante Four Graces.

A half-sister to the accomplished McCraken, Four Graces represents the same connections as a Whitham Thoroughbreds homebred trained by Ian Wilkes. But her pedigree is even speedier than McCraken’s, since Four Graces is by Majesticperfection, and she could well prove a one-turn specialist.

If the 7-furlong Dogwood didn’t answer any distance questions, it did further her big reputation. The 2-1 second choice was forced to go early from post 2, had her head in front of the phalanx through an opening quarter in :22.27, and began to inch away at the half in :44.84.

The 6-5 favorite Edgeway, despite being stacked widest of all in pursuit, soldiered on into contention in upper stretch. But Four Graces kept finding to pull 2 1/2 lengths clear in a time of 1:22.28, and bank 20 Oaks points.

Edgeway took home 8 points for finishing 5 3/4 lengths ahead of Bayerness, who received 4 points in third. Fourth-placer Lady Glamour reported home the same margin back, good for 2 points to double her total to 4. Next came Ain’t No Elmers, Clivetty, Magic Dance, and Naughty Thoughts.

Four Graces improved her record to 4-3-0-0, $134,450, with all of her wins going 7 furlongs. The Gulfstream Park debut winner regressed to fourth in her second start at a mile, but she was beaten before stamina would have factored. She rebounded in an allowance on Churchill’s May 16 opener and passed her stakes test here.

“She sat back a little bit in the gate right before it sprung,” winning rider Julien Leparoux said, “so she came out of there a little late. She moved real comfortably throughout the race and at the head of the lane when I asked her for her best run she responded right away. She’s a very classy filly and takes after all of her siblings.”

“This entire family is extremely talented,” Wilkes noted, “so it was very rewarding to get her a stakes win today. I thought she was going to have to go faster to get the lead but it ended up working out for us with the early pace scenario. We had no other choice but to show speed because of her post on the inside. I felt really confident when she came off the turn and Julien started asking her to run and she put away (Edgeway) on her outside. There were some very nice fillies in this race that she beat.”

Four Graces is out of the Seeking the Gold mare Ivory Empress, whose first five foals are all winners, and her sixth, Milliken, is now a juvenile. Three of them have garnered black-type. Multiple Grade 3-placed Bondurant preceded her Grade 2 hero McCraken, a nose shy of a Grade 1 score in the 2017 Haskell (G1), and Four Graces promises to add more to the family trophy cabinet.