By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Question: How fast will the early pace be in the 2018
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
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.
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.
|Year||First 1/4||First ½||First ¾||Last ½|
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 www.theturfboard.com.