Top contenders showing speed in preps, expected to change tactics in 2015 Kentucky Derby

Profile Picture: James Scully

April 6th, 2015

Dortmund and Carpe Diem exit convincing wins as two of the likely top three betting choices in the May 2 Kentucky Derby, along with juvenile champion American Pharoah if he delivers in this Saturday’s Arkansas Derby. One common characteristic surrounding their 2015 form has been speed.

American Pharoah isn’t going to rate in the Kentucky Derby – he’s quicker than any three-year-old under consideration and the talented front-runner will be on the lead or very close from the break. He’s got a chance to run the competition into the ground.

But the connections of Dortmund and Carpe Diem don’t necessarily want to be chasing the action from the start, preferring to see their charges settle early if a hot early pace develops in a 20-horse field. Pace meltdowns are a common theme surrounding recent runnings of the 1 ¼-mile classic, with the top three finishers in 2013 all 15th or worse after the opening quarter-mile, and an opening three-quarters of 1:09 1/5 in both 2012 and 2013.

All four of Carpe Diem’s career wins have come in front-running style. He tracked the pace in his first two starts this year, only a half-length back through an opening half-mile of :46 3/5 in the March 7 Tampa Bay Derby before closely pressing pacesetter Ocho Ocho Ocho in second during Saturday’s Blue Grass.

Todd Pletcher isn’t worried about being too one-dimensional in the Kentucky Derby, noting that the chestnut colt displayed a fine finishing kick from off the pace in a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up last November.

 “I think he’s versatile enough where when they go :24 and :48 he’s going to find himself closer to the pace and if they go :23 and :46 I think he’ll settle a little more midpack,” the trainer told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Sunday morning.

Bob Baffert is probably expecting the same from Dortmund, who led every step of the way in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby after capturing the March 7 San Felipe wire to wire.

The Hall of Fame conditioner knows Dortmund rallied from fifth to capture a Churchill Downs allowance going away by 7 ¾ lengths last November and watched his colt settle, about three lengths back of a contested opening quarter-mile, before closing to win December’s Los Alamitos Futurity.

But a change of tactics isn’t a given for horses blessed with natural speed like Carpe Diem and Dortmund. The Kentucky Derby is held before a raucous 150,000+ crowd and young three-year-olds can get fired up in the paddock and pre-race post parade.  

Headstrong behavior is the last thing supporters want to see passing the stands the first time and the question facing a pair of jockeys is simple: can Martin Garcia (Dortmund) and John Velazquez (Carpe Diem) get their mounts to relax during the early stages?

Point Given serves as a cautionary tale for those naturally expecting a turnaround to rating tactics in the Kentucky Derby - getting caught in the frying pan cost the future Hall of Famer the Triple Crown.

Point Given was versatile early in his career, rallying to win the Kentucky Cup Juvenile and closing from 14th to finish a nose second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But the massive chestnut turned in a speedy performance in his final prep race, contesting an opening half-mile of :46 2/5 before winning the Santa Anita Derby in hand, and the 9-5 favorite proved too gung-ho from the starting gate in the 2001 Kentucky Derby, within five lengths of an opening quarter-mile in :22 1/5 as he continued to chase a wicked half-mile of :44 4/5 into the backstretch.

“The setup for the race, the pace was ridiculous, and it was just bad luck, and we didn't get it done and the other two races they were like nothing for him, so it was pretty disappointing,” Baffert said of Point Given’s Derby on last week’s NTRA teleconference.

Point Given showed the versatility many expected two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes, rallying from 10 lengths off the pace to win going away, and romped home a 12 ¼-length scorer in the Belmont Stakes. The Kentucky Derby was his only loss in a Horse of the Year campaign – Point Given towered above that season’s three-year-old division.

Dortmund and Carpe Diem could both settle nicely – recent winners I’ll Have Another (2012) and Super Saver (2010) displayed speed in prep races before dropping at least eight lengths off the pace in the Kentucky Derby – but there are no guarantees. And the early stages will be critical for each runner’s chances.

As Baffert told the Santa Anita notes’ team heading into the Santa Anita Derby:

“These races are won and lost in the first turn.”