Predicting the Kentucky Derby Pace

Derek Simon

April 18th, 2015

One of the things that makes the Kentucky Derby a race like no other is the pace. Whereas most races at 1 1/4 miles or greater produce moderate early fractions, the Kentucky Derby is often run like an elongated version of the All-American Futurity, as horses struggle to find and maintain position in the oft-bulky field.

Over the past 20 years, the Kentucky Derby pacesetter has averaged an early speed ration (ESR) of -10 — that’s a full four lengths faster than the typical ten-furlong race and equates to about a :46-1/5 opening half-mile over a normal, fast Churchill Downs oval.

This is notable because only three likely Derby entrants — Dortmund, Firing Line and One Lucky Dane — have ever won after running so fast early in a two-turn route. It also exemplifies the challenge faced by slower frontrunners and pressers, like Materiality and everybody’s “buzz horse,” Mubtaahij.

The former went gate to wire in the Florida Derby, earning an ESR a full three lengths slower than the Derby par, while the latter has been up close in each of his last three starts — including his eight-length smackdown of nine rivals in the UAE Derby — yet his best ESR puts him nine lengths back in the early stages of the most exciting two minutes in sports.

Of course, there have been exceptions to the fast-pace Derby rule, like in 2002, when War Emblem recorded a -6 ESR and led from start to finish, with his closest pursuers at the half-mile call — Proud Citizen and Perfect Drift — in tow to complete the trifecta.

There was also 2011, when Shackleford set, by my figures, the second-slowest pace in Kentucky Derby history, before checking in fourth at 23-1 (Shackleford went on to win the Preakness in his very next start after recording a brisk -9 ESR — go figure).

All this begs the question: Is there a way to determine exactly how fast — or slow — the Derby pace is likely to be this year?

Well, obviously, nothing is foolproof, but my database studies did uncover a pretty good method of forecasting the fractions. Not surprisingly, it all comes down to how many confirmed frontrunners are in the race. When only a few need-the-lead types are present, such as in 1997 and 2009, the pace is generally slower. When there are numerous early runners, as was the case in 1998 and 2000, the pace is typically a lot quicker.

So, what constitutes a confirmed frontrunner or need-the-lead type?

To answer this question, I turned to one of my favorite handicapping authors, Dr. William Quirin. In “Winning at the Races: Computer Discoveries in Thoroughbred Handicapping,” Dr. Quirin offers a numerical method of determining the early pacesetters.

Under Quirin’s point system, horses that contested the lead in their last three starts (with some exceptions) were awarded seven points — with a bonus point given to the swiftest of the swift. Hence, it made sense to me to consider these horses (those with 7-8 Quirin speed points) as the most likely to be on or near the pace on the first Saturday in May.

The data (from 1992-2014) seems to back me up, as the chart below clearly indicates:

What does all this mean? Well, considering that seven current Derby contenders — Dortmund, American Pharoah, Materiality, Upstart, Firing Line, Stanford and Toasting Master — have 7-8 Quirin speed points, it looks like the pace of this year’s Derby could be very hot indeed.