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KENTUCKY DERBY 2011: A Second Look At Pace On Derby Day

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There's been a lot of discussion about the Churchill Downs main track on Saturday and its impact on the Derby and the other races on the card. The chief debate centers around Shackleford, whether or not he should have won after the factions he set on the front end of the Derby, and whether or not there was a bias against the speed on the Derby day races on dirt. As is typical when we start to look at results, final times and fractional splits, the data leaves a lot open to personal interpretation.

Of the nine dirt races on Saturday, only one horse took the field gate-to-wire - C J Russell in the 3rd race Maiden Special Weight at six furlongs. (see chart below) One other pacesetter finished 2nd - odds-on Hilda's Passion who ran the fastest ½ mile split of any horse on the main track on Saturday. (Winner Sassy's Image continued her winning ways at Churchill Downs where she is now 5-4-0-1.)

Race Condition Dist. 1/4 1/2 3/4 Mile Finish Pace Finish Winner@1/2
1 Str Alw 8.0 23.14 45.85 1:10.80 1:35.69 7th 5th
2 Alw N1X 8.5 24.26 48.63 1:13.39 1:37.41 1:43.61 5th 2nd
3 Md Spt Wt 6.0 22.21 46.15 1:09.62 1st 1st
5 Alw OC 7.0 22.52 45.50 1:09.83 1:22.07 9th 6th
7 G1-HumDistaff 7.0 22.29 44.68 1:08.54 1:21.01 2nd 5th
9 G2-CD 7.0 22.56 45.00 1:08.84 1:21.40 8th 8th
11 G1-KyDerby 10.0 22.24 48.63 1:13.40 1:37.49 2:02.04 4th 12th
12 Alw N$L 7.0 22.28 44.85 1:09.30 1:21.86 3rd 3rd
13 Md Sp Wt 8.5 24.81 49.30 1:13.60 1:39.64 1:45.09 6th 8th

For me, the day was a mixed bag - pace horses finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th in the nine dirt races on the card. The odds on those pace horses ranged from 0.60 of Hilda's Passion to 27.80 of Chasing Moonlight. Tough to make a definitive call on a bias one way or another. Do we expect long shots to win wire-to-wire on a fair track? Probably not, but it depends on the ease of the lead and the quickness of the pace. Do we expect odds on favorites to fail at going wire to wire on a fair track? Again, probably not, but that also depends on the ease of the lead and the fractions.

While it's clear that Churchill wasn't favoring speed on Saturday, was it biased against speed? Perhaps the track was tiring on the front end in two-turn races on Saturday, as those produced the slowest pace scenarios. Of course, we would expect two-turn races to be slower (even though, traditionally, the Derby is quite quick in the early stages). There were two other two-turn races on the main track on Saturday, and both produced roughly the same six furlong split as the Derby. The second race, an N1X Allowance for horses three-years-old an up, saw the 23/1 pacesetter clock six furlongs in 1:13.39 before fading to 5th. The 13th race, a Maiden Special Weight, saw the 10/1 pacesetter got six in 1:13.60 before fading to 6th. Even on a slow surface, I would expect a Grade 1 Kentucky Derby to produce a faster six furlong split than a maiden race and a race containing horses that had only a maiden win to their credit.

Looking just at the Derby pacesetters, all of the other pace horses that faltered in the Derby reasons for doing so. Comma to the Top (2nd at ¾) sustained an injury. Decisive Moment (3rd at ¾) hadn't shown a willingness to go 9 furlongs, let alone 10. And Pants On Fire (4th at ¾) was reported to have bled following the race. The only other horse in the top five early that didn't falter was Nehro (5th at ¾), who finished 2nd.

At the end of the day, I've got the Churchill Downs main track as "fair/slight off-pace bias" in my notebook for the Derby day card.

Going forward, Shackleford probably moves up a notch at Pimlico, where things will likely be a bit more favorable to him on the front-end. At the same time, I doubt he's going to get anything resembling the easy lead he got at Churchill, especially if a colt like Flashpoint enters the race.

Ultimately, the analysis of pace and race shapes on Derby day is another reminder as to why calculating daily variants and speed or pace figures is as much art as it is science. There is no definitive answer from data. I look at it and feel that, while speed wasn't killing on Saturday, it wasn't a complete toss, either. Someone else looks at the data and sees a track biased against speed. We can look at average times, par values, and any other host of times and calculations we can get our hands on, yet we still have to individually decide how much weight we give to specific pieces of data. There are tons of subtle factors figure makers have to take into account to judge the speed of a track, and they are almost all subjective, not objective. The only objective factor is the time, but how we view that time is up to the individual.

But, hey, that's the fun of horse racing, right? If we all agreed it would be a pretty boring sport to bet on.