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Pace in the Kentucky Derby

ARCADIA, CA - APRIL 03: Jockey Joseph Talamo rides Sidney's Candy to victory in the 73rd running of the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 3, 2010 at Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, California. (Photo by Jeff Golden/Getty Images)
ARCADIA, CA - APRIL 03: Jockey Joseph Talamo rides Sidney's Candy to victory in the 73rd running of the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 3, 2010 at Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, California. (Photo by Jeff Golden/Getty Images)
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Put twenty colts in a starting gate and ask them to run the longest race in their short careers (and, for many, the longest race they'll ever run), and there is a high probability for some chaotic results.  Throw in the fact that many of these colts (and, sometimes, fillies) are bred to run only a mile or slightly more, and you are generally left with a Derby that has an extremely contentious early pace.  So what, if anything, can we learn about the Derby from previous years?  Let's take a look at the data and find out.

At the bottom of this post is a table illustrating the elapsed and incremental pace for the last twenty runnings of the Kentucky Derby, including the winner, winner's position at six furlongs, the finish position of the six furlong leader, and the track condition. (Chart displays best on "wide" setting.)

In the last twenty editions of the Kentucky Derby, only two have been won by a horse leading after ¾ of a mile: War Emblem (2002) and Go for Gin (1994).  The finish positions for horses leading after six furlongs over the past ten years is not a pretty sight: 7th, 16th, 2nd, 20th, 16th, 2nd, 16th, 1st, 13th, 16th.  The two second place horses were Hard Spun (2007) and Lion Heart (2004); other than those two there is nary a front runner to be found leading at the end of the race. 

A little bit of trivia about Lion Heart's Derby run in 2004 - he ran the race without the use of Lasix, the only horse in the field to do so that day and the first horse since 1998 (Chilito).  The next year, two horses ran without Lasix (Don't Get Mad and Spanish Chestnut); none have done so since.  Makes you wonder, had Lion Heart been on Lasix that day would he have had enough in the tank to hold off Smarty Jones in the stretch?  It's not like that last quarter of a mile was anything special (26.71).  Like Jerry Bailey says:, hay, oats, and water - anything else just raises too many questions.

The key running style over the last twenty years clearly has been stalker/mid-pack.  We've seen two wire-to-wire winners, three deep closers, and a ton of horses placed anywhere from second to tenth bring home the top prize.  That seems entirely logical as front runners will have a very tough time carrying their speed a mile and a quarter through testing early fractions, and deep closers will usually have to deal with significant traffic issues, regardless of how well the pace sets up for them. 

Comparing fractional or final times from year to year is a difficult proposition due to variances in track condition, weather, maintenance, etc., but at the same time I find the internal splits helpful in identifying races that held together or fell apart in deep stretch.   The splits for the last two Derby are particularly interesting: according to DRF's interactive Formulator charts, Mine That Bird ran the final quarter mile of the Derby in :24.00 after chasing an opening six furlongs of 1:12.09 over a track rated "SLOPPY".  The previous year, Big Brown, went :25.26 in the final quarter after chasing the leaders through six in 1:11.14. 

Does this tell us that Mine That Bird was better than Big Brown?  Well, I think it's safe to say that Big Brown was an all-around better colt, but that Mine That Bird certainly ran a  very good Derby (likely due to the fact that he got a great ride from Calvin Borel and the track played very fast on the rail all day).  Big Brown didn't close as fast as Mine That Bird for the simple reason that he expended more energy early on in the race.  Mine That Bird was in 19th position at the six furlong mark, well behind the field, and ran that first three-quarters of a mile in 1:14.47.  Big Brown, on the other hand, ran the first six furlongs in 1:11.77, a huge difference regardless of the inherent speed of the track on that particular day.

The variance in closing times of horses in the face of a strong or weak pace is nothing new, most players factor that into their daily handicapping routine on a daily basis.  At the same time, in four weeks a lot of people are going to place bets on early speed horses that have very little chance of winning the Derby.   Additionally, it seems pretty clear to me that a colt has to be pretty special to sit close to a fast pace in the Derby and win.  Big Brown, Barbaro, Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, Charasmatic, Real Quiet, Silver Charm...those are your stalk and pounce winners as of late.  With the exception of Big Brown (who was just flat-out much more talented than his year's weak crop of three year olds), these colts all had shown an ability to rate prior to entering the Derby.  On the other hand, colt's entering the Derby with a "need to lead" style have fared poorly. 

The fastest closing quarter mile at the Derby in the last twenty years? The 2006 Derby featuring Barbaro, which came up with a final quarter of 24.34 seconds.  Unbridled and War Emblem's years come in next at around 24.40. 

The slowest Derby final quarter mile in the last twenty years? :27.20 in the Sunday Silence year of 1989.  Of course, that race came over a muddy, and likely tiring, track.  In terms of slow final quarters over a fast track we only have to go back to the "Every Colt is Sucking Air" final quarter of 26.87 in the 2005 Derby, won by Giacomo.  That brutally slow final quarter was primarily due to the absolutely absurd early pace set by Spanish Chestnut of 1:09.59, and a tactical error by Afleet Alex's jockey, Jeremy Rose*, who probably moved his colt too early into the teeth of that strong pace.  Afleet Alex generally displayed a strong finishing ability, but he was asked to do too much, too soon in a Derby that set-up perfectly for a grinder to pass a tiring field. 

Looking to play a deep, stone cold closer in the Derby? Lately that hasn't been a bad idea as three of the past five Derby winners were 17th or worse after six furlongs: Mine That Bird (2009), Street Sense (2007), and Giacomo (2005).  However, prior to those three horses, no horse had rallied from further back than 13th at that point in the race (Grindstone (1996)).

So what, if anything, does any of this information tell us anything about picking a Derby winner?  Here are four things I take from the data:   

  1. It's damn hard to win the Derby going gate to wire.  
  2. Horses that have won by rating off the pacesetters have generally displayed that ability prior to running in the Derby.  
  3. Closers have done well lately, perhaps due to the lack of stamina in today's thoroughbred, or perhaps it's just a fluke.  I'll take it as a fluke for now.
  4. Early pacesetters generally finish well back of the field.  Only five horses that were leading after six furlongs have finished better than 4th in the last twenty years.

While we don't yet know which twenty horses will be lining up at Churchill in four weeks, we do have a good idea of what types of horses should do well in the Derby.

*Following the 2005 Derby, I was hesitant to put the blame on Jeremy Rose for Afleet Alex's loss to Giacomo but , upon further reflection, it's really hard to come to any other conclusion, especially when you consider that Rose was taken off of one of this year's contenders, Schoolyard Dreams, for essentially the same thing: moving too soon.  Given the relative weakness of that crop, and Alfeet Alex's triumphs in the Preakness and the Belmont, would we have had a Triple Crown winner if Afleet Alex had a jockey with better pace awareness in the Derby?  

Splits

Internal Splits

Year

2f

4f

6f

Mile

1 1/4

2f

4f

6f

Mile

1 1/4

Winner

3/4

Pace

Track

2009

22.98

47.23

72.09

97.49

122.66

22.98

24.25

24.86

25.40

25.17

Mine That Bird

19th

7th

Sloppy

2008

23.30

47.04

71.14

96.56

121.82

23.30

23.74

24.10

25.42

25.26

Big Brown

6th

16th

Fast

2007

22.96

46.26

71.13

97.04

122.17

22.96

23.30

24.87

25.91

25.13

Street Sense

17th

2nd

Fast

2006

22.63

46.07

70.88

97.02

121.36

22.63

23.44

24.81

26.14

24.34

Barbaro

4th

20th

Fast

2005

22.28

45.38

69.59

95.88

122.75

22.28

23.10

24.21

26.29

26.87

Giacomo

18th

16th

Fast

2004

22.99

46.73

71.80

97.35

124.06

22.99

23.74

25.07

25.55

26.71

Smarty Jones

2nd

2nd

Sloppy

2003

22.78

46.23

70.48

95.75

121.19

22.78

23.45

24.25

25.27

25.44

Funny Cide

3rd

16th

Fast

2002

23.25

47.04

71.75

96.70

121.13

23.25

23.79

24.71

24.95

24.43

War Emblem

1st

1st

Fast

2001

22.25

44.86

69.25

95.00

119.97

22.25

22.61

24.39

25.75

24.97

Monarchos

10th

13th

Fast

2000

22.47

45.99

69.99

95.74

121.12

22.47

23.52

24.00

25.75

25.38

FusaichiPegasus

11th

16th

Fast

1999

23.52

47.88

72.52

97.58

123.29

23.52

24.36

24.64

25.06

25.71

Charismatic

7th

15th

Fast

1998

22.75

45.75

70.62

95.61

122.38

22.75

23.00

24.87

24.99

26.77

Real Quiet

6th

10th

Fast

1997

23.57

47.55

72.23

97.31

122.44

23.57

23.98

24.68

25.08

25.13

Silver Charm

4th

4th

Fast

1996

22.34

46.09

70.15

95.16

121.06

22.34

23.75

24.06

25.01

25.90

Grindstone

13th

18th

Fast

1995

22.57

45.89

70.33

95.72

121.27

22.57

23.32

24.44

25.39

25.55

Thunder Gulch

5th

16th

Fast

1994

22.97

47.21

71.98

97.73

123.72

22.97

24.24

24.77

25.75

25.99

Go for Gin

1st

1st

Sloppy

1993

22.80

46.63

71.22

96.96

122.42

22.80

23.83

24.59

25.74

25.46

Sea Hero

10th

16th

Fast

1992

23.44

47.90

72.37

97.72

123.04

23.44

24.46

24.47

25.35

25.32

Lil E. Tee

7th

3rd

Fast

1991

23.26

46.58

71.35

97.51

123.08

23.26

23.32

24.77

26.16

25.57

Strike the Gold

10th

8th

Fast

1990

22.60

46.00

71.00

97.60

122.00

22.60

23.40

25.00

26.60

24.40

Unbridled

6th

11th

Good

1989

23.00

46.60

71.40

97.80

125.00

23.00

23.60

24.80

26.40

27.20

Sunday Silence

4th

8th

Muddy