Infuriating Pace Scenarios: Derby Edition

Profile Picture: Molly Jo Rosen

Molly Jo Rosen

April 8th, 2014

by Andrew Champagne

Originally, this post was going to be much angrier. We're a month away from the Kentucky Derby, and instead of a couple of horses reigning supreme over the current crop of 3-year-olds, the picture is as murky as ever. To be fair: California Chrome made a case for Derby favoritism with his emphatic 5+ length win in the Santa Anita Derby, but - really - is that the best this group has to offer?

As I've thought (and rethought and thought again) about this, my problem isn't so much with the 3-year-olds who may win the Derby. My issue, from a handicapping standpoint, is that almost every Derby prep-winner we've seen so far has run exactly the same way.

Gulfstream Park's speed bias during their recently-concluded winter meet was ridiculous. Santa Anita is certainly capable of being friendly to front-runners, and Aqueduct's inner track was at times, too. As we progress to the 1-1/4-mile Kentucky Derby, a race contested at a distance totally foreign to all of these horses, it's important to remember one old adage: pace makes the race. But is too much pace a bad thing?

Just for fun, let's look at this year's Kentucky Derby prep races contested on conventional dirt and see how they were won.

Jerome: Noble Moon led from the half-mile pole onward and finished slowly

Sham: Midnight Hawk dueled early and ducked in late

Lecomte: Vicar's in Trouble was never worse than second and hand-ridden late

Smarty Jones: Tanzanite Cat dueled early and edged away late

Holy Bull: Cairo Prince was three lengths back early and made a sweeping move

Withers: Samraat dueled throughout with Uncle Sigh

Robert B. Lewis: Candy Boy was never more than two lengths back, swung out and nabbed the lead inside the sixteenth pole

Southwest: Tapiture dueled early and stormed off

Fountain of Youth: Wildcat Red rode a huge speed bias

Risen Star: Intense Holiday (a closer!) got up at the wire by a whisker

Gotham: Samraat was never more than 1-1/2 lengths back

San Felipe: California Chrome wire-to-wire

Tampa Bay Derby: Ring Weekend wire-to-wire

Rebel: Hoppertunity was never more than a length behind and closed well

Sunland Derby: Chitu was second early and finished slowly on an extremely fast surface

Florida Derby: Constitution was never more than two lengths back and rallied up the rail

Louisiana Derby: Vicar's in Trouble got to the lead on the backstretch and never looked back

Let's recap... of the 17 prep races run on dirt to this point in the year: 15 were won by horses on or relatively close to the early lead.

My cutoff was two lengths back of the early lead, so while Candy Boy, Samraat (Gotham), Hoppertunity, and Constitution showed some late interest, they were all involved in the race right out of the gate. 15 different horses won these races (Vicar's in Trouble and Samraat won two).

For purposes of this exercise... if all 15 of these horses run in the Derby, how many can conceivably be expected to settle off the pace? Asked another way, how many would be remotely comfortably running 14th or 15th?

Everything about this prospective Kentucky Derby field screams, "SETS UP FOR A CLOSER!!!" Of this group, who can close? And who can close on conventional dirt?!?

Intense Holiday showed a good kick in the Risen Star, and while he was nowhere close to Vicar's in Trouble in the Louisiana Derby, the former didn't get a great setup and had an adventurous trip. I'm also not off Cairo Prince's bandwagon, assuming he makes the cut. He may have needed the Florida Derby, and he was wide while Constitution got the dream trip on the rail. Plus, he's shown he can make up ground late, which is something not many others have done.

We may not have seen this year's Kentucky Derby winner run his final prep race yet. Thankfully, there's still time for a closer to emerge as a Derby contender. If one doesn't, one of the hardest races in America to handicap may get even harder.