Peter J. Callahan ’63
A Spot in the Winners Circle
Throughout his youth, Peter J. Callahan ’63 enjoyed participating in team sports like football and baseball. Despite social distancing, 2020 proved to be the year that he found himself on a spectacularly winning team as the owner of Swiss Skydiver, winner of the Preakness Stakes on October 3, 2020.
“Racing horses is like competing vicariously through the horses,” he says. “If you have a competitive instinct in you, especially for sports, you never shake it.”
Growing up in Astoria, Queens, some of Callahan’s childhood friends had relatives who bet on horse races, so as a kid he was often surrounded by talk of horses.
After graduating from St. Francis College, he attended business school at Columbia University. Master’s degree in hand, he went to work at an accounting firm, Peat Marwick (now KPMG). Once or twice a month, Callahan and some of his colleagues would go to either Roosevelt Raceway or Yonkers Raceway.
“My interest in horses began to grow from a betting and recreational point of view,” he says.
By the late 1980s, Callahan owned his own company and did a lot of business with someone he considered a mentor. One day over breakfast, the man said they should go into business owning a few racehorses.
“I decided I liked it a lot, so when he wasn’t in it, I was in it on my own. I’ve been racing horses for about 30 years,” Callahan says. “It’s very exciting.”
He found Swiss Skydiver at an auction in Kentucky when his trainer told him about a filly by a new sire, Daredevil. They liked the filly, born in March 2017, and there was an opportunity to buy her at what, by horse racing standards, was below market price.
The horse’s name is inspired by Callahan’s granddaughter, Callie. Early one Sunday morning he was awakened by the ping of his cell phone and found a text message from Callie with a video of her jumping out of a plane in Switzerland.
“I thought it was pretty daredevilish of her,” he says. “When I saw Daredevil, I thought, ‘That’s my granddaughter jumping out of planes.’ I said let’s name the daredevil filly Skydiver. That was taken, so I added the prefix Swiss. That’s the story of Swiss Skydiver.”
This has been an exciting year for Swiss Skydiver, who also won the Santa Anita Oaks and Alabama Stakes. He’d have preferred to be at all her races with friends and family, but he tunes out the negative and focuses on what a great time it’s been.
“We have a horse that’s getting talked about as if she is one of the best fillies of all time,” Callahan says. “It’s been a fabulous ride. It’s taken us all over the country either in person or on television.”
He loves the close races, highlighted by the Preakness, where Swiss Skydiver was battling the Kentucky Derby winner. “The girl and the boy came down the stretch neck-and-neck and nose-to-nose and she prevailed. That really gets you going; it’s a lot of fun,” says Callahan.
“The ride across 2020… she’s gotten better and better,” he adds. “The respect she gets across the country is just astounding.”
Swiss Skydiver’s last race of the year was at the Breeders’ Cup on November 7, after which, she gets some rest. Then, Callahan and his team will need to decide if they will race her again next year, which means she resumes training in February. The other option is to breed her. Breeding season in the thoroughbred industry starts February 15.
“I honestly can’t tell you which way we’re going to go,” he says. “She’s the horse of a lifetime.”
Swiss Skydiver’s colors are red and blue, Callahan’s homage to SFC. Callahan attended both St. Francis Preparatory School and St. Francis College. He appreciated the liberal arts perspective of SFC and the exposure to different subjects. His major was accounting because his research showed him accounting firms were hiring.
“We had a good, well-rounded education,” Callahan says. He selected Columbia Business School because its then trimester program enabled him to complete his master’s degree within one year. He also was able to get some advance credit from courses he took at St. Francis.
“I felt totally prepared going from St. Francis to Columbia,” he notes.
After working at an accounting firm, Callahan went to work in-house at a public company in the publishing industry that also owned radio stations. About five years in, the company was merging with another company and they were disposing of assets in the combined portfolio that they didn’t see as part of the combined company. One asset was a group of magazines that garnered little interest.
“My father was a truck driver, and he from time to time would get furloughed,” Callahan says. “I think I put in my head that I really wanted to work for myself.
“When these magazines couldn’t be sold, I raised my hand,” he added.
That was 1975 and he has worked for himself since then. Over the years, he’s bought and sold magazines, including the famed supermarket tabloid National Enquirer, which he owned for 10 years, selling it in 1999. Today, he’s scaled back, but still owns two magazines in the retail pet industry. Although the magazines have suffered during this time of COVID-19, he will not close them anytime soon because he cares about the magazines and the people who create them, which he hopes reflects Franciscan values.
In addition to racing horses, he does a bit of investing in real estate in Palm Beach County, Florida. He also enjoys spending time with his three daughters and seven grandchildren.
Although he has lived in Florida since 1989, Callahan still loves New York City and makes a point of visiting his old neighborhood when he’s in town, marveling at the still amazing Greek restaurants in Astoria.
Some health conditions put him at high risk for COVID-19, so for the most part he’s stayed close to home in recent months.
“Where would I be if I didn’t have Swiss Skydiver to cheer me up?” he says. “She has given me a good year. I hope we get to do it again next year, but you don’t take anything like that for granted.”