Preliminary Pace Discussion in 2015 Kentucky Derby

Profile Picture: James Scully

April 15th, 2015

California Chrome “rated kindly” in third, according to the Equibase chart caller, during the early stages of the 2014 Kentucky Derby but was never far behind, within two lengths of the pacesetter at the first two points of call (quarter-mile and half-mile).

After an opening quarter-mile in :23, all of the runners close to the pace were essentially afforded a breather on the front end, with a second quarter in :24 1/5 (:47 1/5 for the half) and the third in :24 3/5 (1:11 4/5).

Last year’s race stood in stark contrast to the 2013 edition, the first where a points system determined eligibility, as Palace Malice ran off at the start, whipping through an opening quarter in :22 2/5 followed by another in :22 4/5 (:45 1/5). The third quarter was more reasonable, :24 3/5 (1:09 4/5), but the damage was already done to any horse who dared to race within seven or eight lengths of the early lead as closers dominated the first three finishing positions.

Internal fractions will determine whether it’s a pressured pace in the 2015 Kentucky Derby.

Post positions will play a critical factor in any pace projections – I envision American Pharoah being on or very close to the lead if he draws posts 1-5, but jockey Victor Espinoza won’t have to necessarily hustle him from an outside gate (Big Brown won his first three starts wire to wire but settled in sixth, 2 ½ lengths behind after the opening half-mile when breaking from post 20 in 2008).

One key element is the run style displayed by so many this year – American Pharoah, Carpe Diem, Dortmund, Firing Line, Materiality, Ocho Ocho Ocho, One Lucky Dane, Stanford,  Tencendur and Upstart were all on or close to the early lead in their final prep.

Ocho Ocho Ocho and Stanford could find themselves overmatched by the competition at 1 ¼ miles and the only chance for an upset will be on the front end. Perhaps one or both won’t show early speed, but other candidates could be sent in their stead.

Firing Line posted BRIS E1 and E2 Pace ratings of 99 and 104 (:45 2/5 and 1:09 opening splits) in a front-running Sunland Derby victory and figures to be fresh, and possibly headstrong, following a six-week freshening. Jockey Gary Stevens won the 2013 Preakness wire to wire aboard the 15-1 Oxbow and knows how to nurse speed, leading all the way in the 1988 Kentucky Derby aboard Winning Colors.

The lightly-raced Materiality has been a confirmed front-runner in all three starts, registering 103 E1 and 115 E2 Pace numbers in his wire-to-wire Florida Derby win. He may not be willing to settle seven or eight lengths off the pace and could be forcing the issue before the field reaches the far turn.

Dortmund is blessed with an abundance of speed, throwing down 111 E1 and 118 E2 Pace ratings wiring Santa Anita Derby foes, but I don’t expect to see him challenging for the lead the first time past the stands. But any expectations of a midpack trip, 10 or more lengths off the early leaders, are unrealistic as well – third or fourth is a much more likely scenario and he could easily be within five lengths of the lead rounding the first turn. Dortmund’s natural quickness could carry him toward the fore before the field even reaches the conclusion of the backstretch.

Any front-runners in the Kentucky Derby could have to deal with a multitude of speedy challengers advancing to pressure, at various stages, through the first six furlongs in the Kentucky Derby.

Mr. Z is a wildcard who could make an early assault, with century-topping E1 Pace ratings in two preps this year. And I won’t completely discount the possibility of suicidal tendencies, at some point during the first three-quarters of a mile, from Tencendur, who turned in a much-improved performance while displaying high speed for the first time last out; One Lucky Dane, whose only two career victories have come wire to wire; and Upstart, who posted 101 E1 and 114 E2 Pace ratings last time.

With a crowd of more than 150,000, the Kentucky Derby paddock and post parade can be a rowdy scene, capable of riling up young and fast three-year-olds who figure to be on the muscle anyway for such an important test. And sometimes there’s nothing a jockey can do – instead of yanking a mount’s head off, the rider has to stay out of the way like Mike Smith did aboard the stalker Palace Malice, who had never contested the early lead in any of his six previous starts.

A reader sent me an email recently dismissing the possibility of a crazy pace duel this year, pointing out that there used to be a lot more cheap speed present that can’t make the field nowadays due to the points’ system. He cited Trinniberg, the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner who was able qualify for the Kentucky Derby that year under the graded earnings criteria.

That’s a fair point.

But I would contend there are probably a good number of future sprint/miler types in this year’s Kentucky Derby field. And the one common characteristic is speed.

An abundance of speed horses, whether they’ve performed well in sprints or route races, can deliver a pressured pace that compromises all of their chances.

In 1986, Snow Chief was the horse to beat. The overwhelming 2-1 favorite brought outstanding form into the Run for the Roses, reeling off five straight stakes victories beforehand, including convincing victories in the Florida Derby and Santa Anita Derby. Snow Chief didn’t have to be on the lead, but he was more than comfortable running rivals into the ground similar to an American Pharoah.

Groovy would’ve qualified for the Kentucky Derby based on points, finishing second in the Champagne and third in the Wood Memorial (24 points). He was also disqualified from a Gotham runner-up. He went on to become a champion sprinter but similar to so many horses who wind up cutting back successfully down the road, his connections had classic aspirations early in his career.

Blue Grass winner Bachelor Beau also brought plenty of speed to the equation as well as Zabaleta, who finished second in an important 1 1/8-mile prep race.

All four horses would’ve earned them enough points to make a 20-horse field if the points’ system was in place and they proceeded to run each other into the ground on Derby Day, with Groovy leading through opening splits of :22 1/5, :45 1/5 and 1:10 1/5 while being pressured by the other three. The foursome hooked up entering the far turn and really went after it, with Snow Chief retreating to 11th by the wire as closers dominated the final outcome.

Snow Chief came back to win the Preakness by four lengths and was named champion three-year-old at the end of the season.

The run down the backstretch and into the far turn will be critical to the outcome in the 2015 Kentucky Derby, especially if the front-runners don’t have the luxury of catching a breather up front.

I’ll revisit this topic as we get closer to the Kentucky Derby but wanted to show the depth of the potential speed in this year’s field, listing the last-race BRIS E2 Pace ratings of the horses mentioned above.

2015 Kentucky Derby last-race BRIS E2 Pace ratings







One Lucky Dane









Firing Line



American Pharoah



Mr. Z



Ocho Ocho Ocho



Carpe Diem