An Early Look at the 2019 Derby Pace Scenario

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

Here's a quick trivia question to ponder: How many of the 2019 Kentucky Derby contenders have ever shown the ability to win a race in gate-to-wire fashion?

The answer is two. Just two horses out of the top twenty-two qualifiers, seemingly an indication that the pace of the 2019 Kentucky Derby will be on the modest side.

That would hardly come as a surprise. Horses with tactical speed have dominated recent editions of the Kentucky Derby in part because we've seen some pretty casual pace fractions. The introduction of the Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying series, which has eliminated tried-and-true sprinters from the field, is likely a contributing factor.

This effect could be particularly pronounced in the 2019 Derby. Maximum Security, gate-to-wire winner of the Florida Derby (gr. I), is the only genuine front-runner in the expected field, having won three of his four starts while leading all the way. Bizarrely, the only other Derby contender to have ever won a race in gate-to-wire fashion is Code of Honor, a front-running debut winner at Saratoga who has since morphed into a deep closer.

And even Maximum Security doesn't possess the speed of a pure sprinter. His Florida Derby victory was aided by a slow pace, and his two other front-running wins came in relatively slow-paced sprints at Gulfstream Park.

Of course, the list of pace pressers/stalkers targeting the Kentucky Derby is much longer. Arkansas Derby (gr. I) winner Omaha Beach, Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) winner Vekoma, the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) runner-up By My Standards, the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) winner War of Will, the Wood Memorial (gr. II) runner-up Tax, and the UAE Derby (UAE-II) runner-up Gray Magician all figure to battle for prime positions sitting just off the early lead, but with the possible exception of Omaha Beach (who is usually vying for command after a half-mile), none seem likely to aggressively challenge on the front end.

Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Roadster and Rebel Stakes (gr. II) winner Long Range Toddy have also shown significant tactical speed at times, but seem more comfortable settling a bit farther off the pace than the likes of Omaha Beach and Vekoma. The same goes for Bodexpress, the Florida Derby (gr. I) runner-up who currently sits in the #21 spot on the qualification leaderboard.

Meanwhile, at least half of the expected Derby starters prefer to rally from off the pace. Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner Game Winner, Sunland Derby (gr. III) winner Cutting Humor, Wood Memorial (gr. II) winner Tacitus, Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner By My Standards, and Arkansas Derby (gr. I) runner-up Improbable seem likely to settle somewhere in the middle of the pack, while the above-mentioned Code of Honor plus Gotham Stakes (gr. III) winner Haikal, UAE Derby (UAE-II) winner Plus Que Parfait, Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) runner-up Win Win Win, Arkansas Derby (gr. I) third-place finisher Country House, and Fukuryu Stakes runner-up Master Fencer have done their best running from far behind.

So what kind of fractions can we expect to see in the Kentucky Derby? That could depend to some extent on the condition of the track (wet-track Derbies tend to produce quicker times), but assuming the track is dry, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect an opening quarter-mile in about :23 flat, a half-mile in :47.20, and six furlongs in 1:11.50—a fifth to two-fifths slower than the average Derby fractions over the last dozen years, as outlined in the chart below:

YearFirst 1/4First ½First ¾Last ½
201822.2445.77 (0.50)1:11.0153.19
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
200722.9646.26 (19.50)1:11.1351.04
Average22.8246.56 (7.30)1:11.1351.67

(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. Please note that the 2009, 2010, 2013, 2017, and 2018 Kentucky Derbies were contested over sloppy tracks, while the 2016 renewal was held over a drying-out track that still featured visible standing water.)

Pace figures from Brisnet likewise support the notion that the 2019 Kentucky Derby pace will be on the slow side. Only five of the top 21 qualifiers (Vekoma, Game Winner, Code of Honor, Improbable, War of Will, and Spinoff) have ever posted a triple-digit BRIS E1 pace rating, with Vekoma being the only runner to earn two such figures. Maximum Security hasn't even come close, with his career-best being a 90; in the Florida Derby, he posted a 71.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that tactical speed figures to be an important asset in the 2019 Kentucky Derby, and any contender able to secure a clean, forwardly-placed trip is going to have every chance to win the roses. At the moment, I'm thinking that the versatile Omaha Beach will be the main threat with Mike Smith (a bold rider of speed horses) in the saddle, but I still have two weeks to make up my mind, and I won't rush the decision.

How do you think the pace of the 2019 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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