Looking at the recent past performances of the 20 horses likely to start in the 2015 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), more than half the field would like to be racing a length or two off the lead.
Based on recent running lines, it's conceivable that Dortmund, Carpe Diem, American Pharoah, Frosted, and Mubtaahij may all take aim at that tracking spot. (deep breath) They could be joined by Materiality, Upstart, Firing Line, Stanford, Mr. Z, Ocho Ocho Ocho, and Bolo. In short, a lot of horses may be looking to track the early leader, an early spot often called a "pressing" running style.
Of course it's unlikely that 11 horses will fan across the backstretch in pursuit of an early leader, so some horses will have to adjust.
This week Todd Pletcher said one of the more interesting questions about this Derby will be which horses are able to secure those pressing spots, and who will be forced to adjust. Pletcher said it will be interesting to see how horses who try a new running style adjust to that challenge. I couldn't agree more.
While the draw figures to dictate how some of this will play out, here's my guess on the early positioning of this year's Derby.
I think American Pharoah is the most likely early leader. He tracked run-off longshot Bridget's Big Luvy early in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I), but that was more of a case of American Pharoah showing some discipline rather than adopting a new running style. I think he returns to his front-running ways Saturday. Granted, if a horse were to aggressively run for the lead, it's good for American Pharoah backers to know he is capable of racing behind such a horse.
American Pharoah - Anne M. Eberhardt Photo
Louisiana Derby (gr. II) runner-up Stanford could be the other horse who goes to the lead early, and he could challenge American Pharoah.
Next up is the long list of potential pressers. I think several of these horses are mid-pack runners disguised as pressers in order to compete on speed-favoring surfaces or in short fields. They're perfectly capable of racing off the pace.
Dortmund falls into that category. He has won his three races this year in gate-to-wire fashion but the son of Big Brown has rallied from as far back as sixth in a one-turn race, and third and fourth in two-turn races. He's the rare horse who rated as a 2-year-old but has been good enough to seize control of graded stakes this year by racing on the front end. Keep in mind that some of those races this year featured short fields as only five horses started in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) and six went in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).
Dortmund - Chad B. Harmon Photo
Upstart also appears capable of settling further off the pace. In sprints he rallied to wins from fourth and fifth in his first two starts, and he rallied from fifth to second in last year's Champagne Stakes (gr. I) contested as a one-turn mile at Belmont Park. Yes, moving to two-turn races can naturally put a horse near the early pace, but I suspect in racing at Gulfstream Park this year, the son of Flatter was asked to be closer to the leaders, racing a bit against what may be his more natural style. Sometimes competing on the Gulfstream surface demands such an adjustment.
Upstart - Conglianese Photos
Godolphin Racing's Frosted also may have been a horse who was kept closer to the pace because of the demands of Gulfstream. The son of Tapit turned in his best effort in his most recent race when he rallied from sixth at Aqueduct Racetrack to win the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I).
Pletcher-trained Carpe Diem also has shown versatility, and I suspect he'll be further back in the Derby than his recent Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) win when he challenged early from second before taking command in the stretch. Last year Carpe Diem rallied from ninth to finish second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I).
At his April 28 press conference, trainer Michael De Kock suggested that Mubtaahij likely will be more off the pace in the Derby than he was in the U.A.E. Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (UAE-II) where he tracked the leader early before rolling to an eight-length win. He noted that he thinks he'll handle kickback, but he also doesn't want to be too far back, noting that in most years the top horses separate themselves from others early in the Derby.
Ocho Ocho Ocho went to the lead in the Blue Grass, but I think that was largely dictated by his draw of the inside post. I look to a return to a more off-the-pace style in the Derby. Mr. Z and Bolo, I think, will naturally settle further back in the Derby field than in their recent starts.
So who will be racing close to American Pharoah early? I would guess that Materiality and Firing Line will prove to be the true pressers in this year's field. The fast-improving Materiality defeated eight rivals while racing on the front end in the Florida Derby (gr. I). He's comfortable racing near the lead and in his first two starts showed he could be successful racing just behind an early leader.
Firing Line excelled racing near the lead early in winning the Sunland Park Derby (gr. III). He has raced among the top three horses in each of his past three starts, including challenging Dortmund throughout the Robert B. Lewis before finishing a head behind him.
My guess for the top four runners through a half-mile in the Derby: 1. American Pharoah, 2. Stanford, 3. Materiality, and 4. Firing Line.