Skydiving Jockey: Robby Albarado's Preparation Meets Another Opportunity

Veteran Jockey Robby Albarado and filly Swiss Skydiver (pictured above winning the 2020 Preakness) head to the $300k Grade I Beholder Mile at Santa Anita on Saturday... Our J.N. Campbell talks with him about how, once again, preparation meets opportunity.
Veteran Jockey Robby Albarado and filly Swiss Skydiver (pictured above winning the 2020 Preakness) head to the $300k Grade I Beholder Mile at Santa Anita on Saturday... Our J.N. Campbell talks with him about how, once again, preparation meets opportunity.

Jockey Robby Albarado is a skydiver, but certainly not the kind you might imagine. Instead of chutes strapped to his back and leaping out of planes, he has spent 4 different decades in Thoroughbred racing, goggled and saddled with some of the very best the sport has to offer.

Skydiving is very much like being a jockey, except around the wrist the wearer substitutes an altimeter for a riding crop. Minor variations... The occupations are not dissimilar, in that one doesn’t just hop aboard a plane and at 15,000 feet, jump.

Likewise, when post time arrives, you do not simply take a mount and notch a victory. Professionals on both sides prepare… and prepare… and prepare… waiting for that moment when it is time to enter the starting gate or exit the door of an airplane. Both jobs need mental and physical “mock-ups,” to borrow a term from diving. When things go wrong, and they do, it can be perilous. But that is precisely when luck gets assumed by readiness, and also the prospect to succeed. Both are part architect and surgeon, with some daredevil sprinkled in.

The Louisiana-born jockey knows firsthand about embracing the oft-used quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca, which was co-opted long ago by everyone from poets to politicians to passers. In fact, when I spoke to Albarado by phone on Thursday about the premise that, luck happens when preparation meets opportunity, he immediately recognized it. “You know, my thinking changed about luck when I heard Quarterback Peyton Manning put it that way,” he admitted, “I think it was a revelation for me about how hard work pays off.” Though seemingly exhausted in usage, the phrase continues to ring true because it speaks to the fact that a game plan can lead to the chance, sometimes only just that, to taste victory.

This past year, riding a filly named Swiss Skydiver (ironically out of Daredevil, and named by owner Peter Callahan, after seeing a picture of his granddaughter skydiving over the Alps), Albarado was presented with one of those moments where the two roads (preparation/opportunity) converged. He didn’t miss the target. Entrusted with piloting instructions by trainer Kenny McPeek, the seasoned controller hit the books and crammed for the test of the year - the Preakness @Pimlico in Baltimore.

It was just over a week before the race that the announcement was made. “Even though there wasn’t a ton of time, I immediately worked her,” Albarado said, “I then got together with Kenny in what was a series of talks, so we could establish a plan for how to approach the race.” The 2nd Leg of the Triple Crown, which by October under COVID-19 became the last, was a contest he had won before.

Albarado reminded me that this time around had special significance on 2 counts. The first… his horse was a female and they do not normally run against males in a contest like this one. The second… pertained to time, as the rider had not won a Triple Crown race since 2007 - though he came close in the 2013 Kentucky Derby. “My career at that point wasn’t seeing many major races,” he admitted, “but when the call came, I was ready, because you go immediately right back to the place that you once were.”

What is intriguing for experienced pilots is the sum of a career. Albarado’s has encompassed so many moments that involved both victories and defeats, mountainous thrills and dangerous spills, but all part of a colossal learning experience. As for that Preakness win, it wasn’t the kind of easy front-end trip that some have, where a jockey hustles to the lead and holds it.

On this dirt run, Albarado had to make key decisions along the way that were cleaved into different moments. “You really never exactly know how a race will unfold,” the jockey told me, “so what you have to do is look at it in stages, and try to make those moments count.” Arm-chaired handicappers believed, and said openly, that if McPeek’s “Skydiver” could not make the lead, then it was going to be almost impossible for her to come from off it to win. What they did not bargain on was the craftiness of a veteran rider like Albarado.

An astute tactician, he found seams where there appeared none; shot a surgical gap on the backstretch that closed like a wormhole to another dimension. In this case, it was an anomaly straight to the front, where John Velazquez was humming along on Bob Baffert’s Authentic. Pulling up alongside that colt, McPeek’s pair laid waste to that lead by running the rail all the way to the wire. He put it squarely when he said that, “We had the ultimate confidence in her after that week before, especially by Friday, and what happened is a series of split-second decisions all fell into place perfectly.” Though it does not always work out that way, this time in the Preakness to hear Albarado tell it, “The ride felt natural.”

Following such a magnificent victory, a month later in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff a tough gate exit ended Swiss Skydiver’s year rather unceremoniously. Now, Albarado is synced like a metronome with her tendencies once again as 2021 unfolds. A fabulous sophomore season saw her career earnings top, $1,845,480. 

After garnering the 2020 Eclipse Award for Champion 3-yr-old Filly back in January, this week she is making her first appearance of the year. Both filly and rider have hopped flights to Los Angeles for a showdown in the $300k Beholder Mile (G1) on the dirt at Santa Anita Park on Saturday afternoon. Amid COVID-19 testing, for her jockey, like last time the strategy began before the PPs were inscribed mid-week and the 8/5 Morning Line designation a day later. An already extremely well-travelled filly, that has run at 9 different racetracks across America including "The Great Race Place," she is ready for another bow.

Earlier this week, Albarado exercised Swiss Skydiver at McPeek’s base of operations in South Florida at Gulfstream Park after obtaining permission to do so. Turfwriting outlets made much of the work (5F/58.09), since it did not exactly go as planned according to her conditioner. Another workout artist apparently pulled up alongside and somewhat challenged “Skydiver.” She accelerated, not to be outdone. “I think a little too much was made out of that work,” Albarado said, “because we need to remember that fast horses… they go fast.”

In other words, in firm control as the rider, he wasn’t going to put her in any danger or jeopardize her ability to run on Saturday. Just like the filly, that geared competitive spirit runs through Albarado’s bloodlines too. Opportunity has arrived in the form of another chance to compete at the highest levels of Thoroughbred racing.

That is something at the forefront of the veteran jockey’s mind because it is not like everyone who has donned silks gets to do this job forever. “I understand that these situations do not come along all the time” he explained, “so, when you are riding a filly who beat the Horse of the Year, you want to enjoy the opportunity.”

To put it another way, you might be able to skydive into your 80s, but you cannot be a jockey forever. The muscle structure needed, level of fitness to maintain, and the apt description as a young person’s game, can ring true. Still, there are those like Mike Smith, Jon Court, Velazquez, and many others, that have defied the odds, turning back the long and short hands on those internal clocks.

How do they continue, you might ask?

The answer seems simple, but it actually remains overtly complex. Portions of that longevity are bound tightly in this concept that Seneca codified. Albarado is living proof, that the cerebral aspects of the occupation in the saddle are just as significant as the physical ones.

On Saturday, when he dresses in those distinctive blue and red silks, and merges with this filly trained by McPeek and owned by Callahan once again, it will be the end of one equation that in turn, meets another chance. The next portion then begins. For this rider, he could not have arrived for the Beholder Mile without understanding how the merging of the process all came together. When I asked him about the #1 breaking point that Swiss Skydiver drew for the impending race, he wryly offered, “Well, she does like the inside.” Study, tactics, fitness, and with a team behind him in the stable and back home, all combine to make him a veritable horse racing skydiver.

Winning at Santa Anita will not be a simple one come Saturday, since she is coming from that layoff. Nothing is for sure, as Robby Albarado well-understands. Yet, when luck takes a backseat, preparation offers a centrality. Interesting, that Seneca continues to sound over the centuries, recruiting the likes of a 2-time Super Bowl-winner, as his words live on... and also, just as a veteran skydiving jockey can attest.