Predicting the Pace of the 2018 Kentucky Derby

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

Question: How fast will the early pace be in the 2018 Kentucky Derby?

That is one of the key factors to consider when handicapping the "Run for the Roses," since predicting the intensity of the early pace can determine whether speed horses or late runners will have the advantage, which might well be the most important factor influencing the outcome of the race.

So how fast will the pace be in the 2018 Derby? Opinions will differ depending on who you ask, but although a battle for the early lead in this Derby seems likely at first glance, I get the feeling that the early pace will wind up being quite a bit slower than expected.

A glance down the list of contenders reveals six horses that have shown the ability to win in gate-to-wire fashion: Arkansas Derby (gr. I) winner Magnum Moon, Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner Noble Indy, UAE Derby (UAE-II) winner Mendelssohn, Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Justify, Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) winner Flameaway, and Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) winner Promises Fulfilled. With the exception of Noble Indy, the above-mentioned horses all scored their signature victories in front-running style.

It's easy to assume that the presence of so many front-runners will lead to a fast pace, but a closer examination of their past performances paints a somewhat different picture. For example, Magnum Moon did win the Arkansas Derby on the lead, but he did so while setting slow fractions of :23.34, :48.60, and 1:13.39. When faced with faster fractions in his two previous starts, Magnum Moon settled nicely behind the leaders, and I expect him to return to those tactics in the Derby.

Noble Indy is another horse that seems more likely to employ pace-pressing tactics in the Derby, given that he won the Louisiana Derby after settling in second and hasn't set the pace since winning his debut sprinting seven furlongs at Gulfstream in December. Justify has plenty of natural speed, but rallied from a couple lengths off the lead to win a one-mile allowance race at Santa Anita in March, so I'd be somewhat surprised if jockey Mike Smith gets aggressive in sending Justify to the lead in the Derby. Mendelssohn won the UAE Derby in gate-to-wire fashion, but that was on a day when speed horses on the rail had a distinct advantage, and Mendelssohn had to be hard-ridden by jockey Ryan Moore to overcome a slow start and secure the lead. In his previous races, including a win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I), Mendelssohn employed pace-tracking tactics.

That leaves Flameaway and Promises Fulfilled as the only horses that seem certain to vie for the lead, pending something unforeseen at the start. Two of Flameaway's biggest victories came in gate-to-wire fashion, and while he also employed stalking tactics to record a runner-up effort in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II), he reverted to his front-running style for the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II), in which he finished second behind champion Good Magic.

But like Magnum Moon, Flameaway has not been running particularly fast while setting the pace; the fractions in the Sam F. Davis Stakes were just :24.18, 47.73, and 1:11.25, while the fractions in the Blue Grass Stakes were :23.55, :47.40, and 1:11.89.

In my opinion, this means that we could see Promises Fulfilled secure a clear early lead in the Derby. Trainer Dale Romans has gone on record saying that Promises Fulfilled will set the pace in the Derby, and the colt certainly has the speed to do so. The son of 2011 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Shackleford has never been headed during the first six furlongs of any race, including his victory over Good Magic in the 8.5-furlong Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Last time out, Promises Fulfilled got involved in an intense speed duel in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and wound up running the opening quarter-mile in :21.95, which cost him any chance at victory. But the fact that Promises Fulfilled possesses that level of early speed--which he also showed last September in his maiden victory--should ensure that he leads the Derby field into the first turn.

Obviously the post position draw could change tactics for a few contenders and force the hand of speed horses drawn inside, but at the moment I'm anticipating that the Derby will unfold at a fairly typical pace--not too fast, but not too slow. With Promises Fulfilled intent on the lead, I envision Flameaway settling back in second place, with Justify, Mendelssohn, and Noble Indy seeking to work out pace-tracking trips just behind the two leaders. I expect to see Magnum Moon in the second flight of runners, along with Bolt d'Oro, Enticed, Good Magic, and Bravazo, with the time for the opening quarter-mile being around :22.80, followed by an easier half-mile in about :46.70 and six furlongs in 1:11.20, give or take a fifth of a second.

Those fractions would certainly be in line with the typical fractions we've seen in the Derby over the last decade. To give you an idea of how the Derby pace tends to unfold, here's a chart detailing the quarter-mile, half-mile, six-furlong, and final half-mile fractions from the last ten Kentucky Derbies; note that the 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2017 renewals were contested over sloppy tracks. Under the column "First ½," I have also included in parentheses the number of lengths by which the eventual winner trailed the leader at that point in the race.

YearFirst 1/4First ½First ¾Last ½
201722.7046.53 (1.00)1:11.1252.47
201622.5845.72 (4.00)1:10.4050.91
201523.2447.34 (2.00)1:11.2951.73
201423.0447.37 (1.50)1:11.8051.86
201322.5745.33 (18.75)1:09.8053.09
201222.3245.39 (8.00)1:09.8052.03
201123.2448.63 (6.25)1:13.4048.64
201022.6346.16 (8.00)1:10.5853.87
200922.9847.23 (16.00)1:12.0950.57
200823.3047.04 (2.50)1:11.1450.68
Average22.8646.67 (6.80)1:11.1451.59

If the pace unfolds as I anticipate, I expect it to favor horses positioned close to the lead, with the winner being whichever horse can blow the race wide open with a big move around the far turn, when the majority of the runners will be decelerating. That horse very well be the favorite, Justify.

Now it's your turn! How do you think the pace of the 2018 Kentucky Derby will unfold?


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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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