A Shift in Derby Running Styles

  • Comments

If one of the horses with early speed entered in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) March 13 at Oaklawn Park is able to emerge with a victory in the 1 1/16-mile race, they figure to be a good fit for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1).

I'm basing that "good fit for the Derby" statement on the fact that on paper an easy lead doesn't seem likely Saturday as a number of runners with early foot are entered. A horse on or pressing the lead Saturday will likely have to deliver a top performance to secure victory. If a horse is able to do that in the Rebel, he would have the right running style for the Derby based on recent editions of the 1 1/4-mile classic.

In the Rebel, runaway Smarty Jones Stakes winner Caddo River is entered, as is San Vicente Stakes (G2) winner Concert Tour shipping in from Southern California, and several other runners with early foot. In his two races at a mile, Caddo River has led at every point of call. Concert Tour will try two turns for the first time after winning on the front end in a six-furlong sprint then pressing early before winning the seven-furlong San Vicente. Saturday's pace figures to be quick.

The connections of Keepmeinmind will hope a strong early pace sets up the late run of their charge, who will be making his first start since rallying from ninth to win last year's Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) in November at Churchill Downs.

In terms of Derby day though, the horses who lead early or contest the pace have fared very well since 2013 when Churchill effectively removed sprinters from consideration by making its Road to the Kentucky Derby points races all route races. Granted, horses who race on or near the lead possess the preferred racing style in American dirt racing, but horses with this running style have not always fared well in the Derby until recent years.

Let's look at recent history:

Last year Authentic seized the lead the first time under the wire, opened a clear advantage, held off a challenge from Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) winner Tiz the Law, and delivered a 1 1/4-length score.
In 2019 Maximum Security reached the wire first after establishing an early lead. He would be disqualified for interference in the far turn but otherwise his 1 3/4-length victory would fit the recent pattern. Country House, who rallied from ninth to finish second, would pick up the win after the DQ.

Justify pressed Promises Fulfilled early before seizing the lead and delivering a 2 1/2-length victory in 2018. That nearly replicated the performance of Always Dreaming's path to Derby glory in 2017. Nyquist pressed from second or third in his Derby win in 2016 after American Pharoah tracked from third in 2015 as did California Chrome in 2014.

In the past seven editions of the Derby, the furthest back that any horse to reach the wire first has raced has been third.

To date, the lone exception in running style since Churchill emphasized route races in determining the field came in the first year when Orb rallied from 17th to score by 2 1/2 lengths. In fact, at the half mile pole that year, the top three finishers were 17th, 15th (Golden Soul), and 18th (Revolutionary). Early leader Palace Malice blazed a half-mile in a too-fast :45.33 on the sloppy and sealed track. He would bounce back to win the Belmont.
As for the winners in the 10 editions of the Derby from 2003-12, all rallied from fourth or further back. Three editions were won by deep closers: Mine That Bird rallied from 19th in 2009, Street Sense from 19th in 2007, and Giacomo from 18th in 2005.

I'll Have Another punched through from seventh in 2012, Animal Kingdom from 12th in 2011, and Super Saver (2010) and Big Brown (2008) each raced sixth early.

Even runners with early speed like Barbaro (2006), Smarty Jones (2004), and Funny Cide (2003), raced in fourth early. Granted, in some of these cases these horses were tracking early sprinter-type runners. If these three Derby winners had run since 2013, they may have raced a position or two closer in the early going.

To date this year the most impressive early-speed type runner on this year's Road to the Kentucky Derby has been Life Is Good, who overwhelmed six rivals in the San Felipe Stakes (G2).

Current points leader Greatest Honour is a late runner, but if he's the horse you're pulling for; all is not lost. Greatest Honour is trained by Shug McGaughey, who sent out Orb for the off-the-pace win in 2013.


(This blog originally ran in BloodHorse Daily.)


Recent Posts

More Blogs