How Fast Will the 2016 Derby Pace Be?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

While handicapping the Kentucky Derby, one of the most important factors to consider is the pace of the race. With eighteen, nineteen, or twenty young horses trying ten furlongs for the first time, the pace of the Derby-whether fast, slow, or somewhere in the middle-can have a huge impact on the outcome of the race.

Over the last few years, we've seen a few striking examples. In 2010 and 2013, the combination of sloppy tracks and very fast paces led to "pace meltdowns," where all the horses near the lead tired and the horses closing from far behind dominated the races. In contrast, 2015 featured a modest pace set by three very good horses-American Pharoah, Firing Line, and Dortmund-and they ended up running 1-2-3 around the track while none of the late-running colts could catch up.

The only problem is that predicting the pace of a Kentucky Derby is easier said than done. Quite often, horses that are supposed to be near the lead end up racing in mid-pack, while horses that like to race off the lead find themselves at the front of the pack. There's no better example than 2013, when a combination of wearing blinkers and racing over a noisy, sloppy track caused Palace Malice to sprint to the lead and set some of the fastest fractions in the history of the Derby.

But if you can correctly identify how fast the pace will be in a Kentucky Derby, you will have a much better chance at choosing the winner and making a big score in the exacta, trifecta, and superfecta. To that end, I'm going to analyze the projected field for the 2016 Kentucky Derby and see what the pace scenario is shaping up to be.

A glance through the list of probable starters reveals a large number of late-running colts without much early speed. Horses like Exaggerator, Brody's Cause, Creator, Lani, Suddenbreakingnews, Oscar Nominated, My Man Sam, Tom's Ready, Mo Tom, and Trojan Nation have done their best running when closing from far behind, and even horses with a bit more tactical speed like Gun Runner, Mor Spirit, Shagaf, Destin, Whitmore, and Majesto prefer to settle in mid-pack and not race too close to the lead.

With so many late-runners targeting the 2016 Derby, it's easy to assume that the pace will be slow, but I'm not sure that will be the case. Of the four horses I haven't mentioned yet, two of them-the Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Outwork and the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) winner Danzing Candy-have shown lots of early speed in all of their races. In the Wood Memorial, Outworked helped set fast fractions of :22.91 and :46.93 over a muddy, tiring track, while Danzing Candy went even faster in the Santa Anita Derby, posting fractions of :22.15 and :45.24 before tiring to finish fourth.

While two speed horses don't guarantee a fast pace, it's important to note that neither Outwork nor Danzing Candy have shown that they can be successful racing off the lead. In fact, Danzing Candy is so fast that he has sprinted to clear early leads in several of his races. Although Outwork looks a little more relaxed than Danzing Candy and could probably settle a length or two off the lead, I also think there's a strong chance that these two speedy colts hook up in a battle for the early lead, which could make the Derby pace quite contentious.

Furthermore, Outwork and Danzing Candy aren't the only horses in the Derby with early speed. The unbeaten champion Nyquist usually races on or near the early lead, and possesses a lot of early speed. While he's also been successful racing off the pace, as he did in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), his best chance at winning the Derby is probably to stay within a couple lengths of the lead, which could heat up the pace just a bit.

But the real wildcard might be the four-time graded stakes winner Mohaymen, who was unbeaten prior to finishing fourth behind Nyquist in the Florida Derby (gr. I). Mohaymen usually likes to settle two or three lengths behind the pacesetters, but in his maiden victory at Belmont Park last September, he won in gate-to-wire fashion while dueling for the lead through fractions of :23.30 and :45.92.

Even more significant is that Mohaymen was brilliant in his most recent workout at Churchill Downs, going four furlongs in a rapid :46.80 while running with his ears pinned back and seemingly very focused on his exercise. If there's any horse that might end up closer to the lead than expected, I think it's Mohaymen, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him involved in the early pace.

So to recap, I believe the 2016 Kentucky Derby will feature a faster early pace than expected-perhaps a half-mile fraction of :46.50 and a six-furlong fraction of around 1:11 flat. I don't envision the pace being any slower than that, and it might even be quicker if Danzing Candy, Outwork, and/or Mohaymen get involved in a battle for the lead. This might not prove to be an issue for the most talented pace-tracking colts in the race, such as Nyquist, but it should also play favorably toward the stretch runners and help set up their late rallies.

Now it's your turn! How do you envision the pace of the 2016 Kentucky Derby unfolding?


To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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