Points Makes the Pace Makes the Race

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TwinSpires Staff

May 6th, 2015

Churchill Downs implemented a new Kentucky Derby qualifying system in 2013—switching from graded earnings to points—and many people initially believed it would mark the end of Derbys being run at insanely fast early paces. The new point system discriminated against successful juveniles and sprinters. Pure front-end sprinters like Trinniberg would no longer qualify to make the race.

But a funny thing happened when they ran the 2013 Kentucky Derby. Over a sloppy sealed track, Palace Malice ran off with first-time blinkers under Mike Smith and set suicidal fractions of 22.57 for the opening quarter and 45.33 for a half mile. Amazingly, eight different horses were positioned within five lengths of Palace Malice through his scorching 22.57 second opening quarter. Here is how they performed:

As you can see, the best performer of the eight horses was Oxbow. He was only beaten 9.75 lengths. The second best performer was Palace Malice, who was beaten by 13.5 lengths. The third best performer was Verrazano, who was beaten by 15.75 lengths.

In Oxbow's next two starts, he won the Preakness at 15/1 odds and finished second in the Belmont Stakes at 10-to-1 odds.

In Palace Malice's next two starts, he won the Belmont Stakes paying $29.60 and captured the Jim Dandy Stakes in sensational time over Will Take Charge and Moreno.

In Verrazano's next two starts, he won the Grade 3 Pegasus by more than nine lengths and won the Grade 1 Haskell by 9.75 lengths.

Obviously, the betting public ignored the insane Kentucky Derby pace in 2013 and just assumed that all of those horses stopped because "they couldn't get the distance."  In fact, the Palace Malice-Oxbow exacta paid $323.50 in the Belmont Stakes and that was after Oxbow had just won the Preakness at long odds. Just imagine what that exacta would've paid if Oxbow had skipped the Preakness.

In hindsight, the most foolish mistake I made in my analysis for this years Kentucky Derby was assuming that the race would be run at a viciously fast and contested pace, just because it usually is run that way.

Here's a great image showing how the early pace unfolded:

Note how a horse like #5 Danzig Moon is under a hard hold right behind the pacesetter. It's generally a good sign of a slow pace when a horse who doesn't show early speed is right behind the pacesetter while under a hold that only the Boston Strangler could appreciate. Another thing worth noting is that Mr. Z was like a lead blocker running down the sidelines in the early stages of this race. Normally, rival jockeys would try to fan out a horse like American Pharoah during the first-time around. It's a classic race riding tactic that is often done to clear-cut favorites who are placed outside and in the clear. However, Mr. Z's jockey Ramon Vazquez rode like a team player in the early stages. Instead of allowing the float-out to happen, he kept a trio of horses to his inside locked in behind the pace setters, and paid the price by taking a lot of contact.

Watching the early stage of the race, It looked like Ramon Vazquez was trying to do everything he could to not hurt the chances of American Pharoah, who had common ownership with Mr. Z, but was trained by D. Wayne Lukas.

Going back to 2000, only two Kentucky Derbys have been run with slower opening quarters than this year’s 23.24 seconds. One of them was a 23.25 opening quarter mile in the 2002 Derby set by War Emblem. The other was a 23.30 opening quarter run into a stiff head-wind the Big Brown year (2008).

Here is the chart of the 2002 Kentucky Derby. Note how the top three finishers raced first, second, and third after a half mile, and stayed on to make up a $18,373.20 trifecta. Meanwhile, Medaglia D' Oro had the best finish of those horses who raced off of the early pace:

Simply put, this year’s pace was very slow by Kentucky Derby standards, but it was still a legitimate pace for the distance. If you're looking for horses who ran well with excuses, it's obviously Materiality and Frosted.

Materiality is a speed horse who has never had dirt in his face in his brief racing career. He blew the break and was almost immediately resentful of the kickback. He started to race erratically and was a bit rank in the early stages. He was on his way to an understandably dismal performance turning for home, when plodders like Keen Ice and Frammento had already passed him before a mile was even completed, but he miraculously decided to run through the stretch and finished up best of all. For a horse who has demonstrated the kind of tactical speed he has in the past this was a remarkable performance. What's more, it was only the fourth start of his career. His form compares with Curlin at the respective stages of their career.

According to Trakus, Frosted had the widest trip of any horse in the entire race. He was also the horse who rallied best through the final half mile of the race. This was another good performance from a horse who has improved a lot since his throat surgery prior to the Wood Memorial.

Finally, Bob Baffert disclosed after the race that Dortmund was dealing with a bout of colic after his workout on April 25th. He almost missed the race. That is an eye-brow raising disclosure and it makes me unwilling to knock Dortmund's performance in the Kentucky Derby. Let's face it, Dortmund had the best trip of any horse in this race and he was put away fairly easily by his rival Firing Line and just managed to win a photo for third place over Frosted, who traveled 75 feet further than him according to Trakus.