An Early Look at the 2020 Derby Pace Scenario

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

It seems like every year, I write a preview of the potential Kentucky Derby pace scenario and reach the same inevitable conclusion—"the pace won't be particularly strenuous, and forwardly-placed runners will thrive."

So far, this conclusion has been pretty much spot-on. Counting the disqualified Maximum Security, the last seven horses to cross the wire first in the Kentucky Derby enjoyed forwardly-placed trips; in fact, none settled farther behind than third place at any call.

But unlike last year—when I correctly predicted a modest pace, noting how just two out of 22 prospective Derby starters had ever won a race in gate-to-wire fashion—I'm hesitant to make a similar declararion for the 2020 Kentucky Derby. This time around, as many as 10 potential Derby starters have displayed the ability to win on the front end, and at least half the field figures to show a serious interest in setting or stalking the pace.

Reviewing the field in horse-by-horse fashion, here are the tactics I envision each Derby contender employing:

Tiz the Law: The Kentucky Derby favorite has utilized pace-tracking tactics in all four of his wins this year, including the Belmont Stakes (G1) and the Travers (G1). Tiz the Law will hope to work out the clean, unencumbered, forwardly-placed trip that has been so effective in recent Derbys, though if the pace is fast he's also versatile enough to rally from behind, as he displayed when overcoming a stumbling start to win the 2019 Champagne (G1).

Authentic: A speedy son of Into Mischief, Authentic tried pace-pressing tactics in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), but weakened to finish second. All three of his graded stakes wins have been achieved in gate-to-wire fashion, so unless someone else goes crazy on the front end, Authentic will almost certainly set the pace at Churchill Downs.

Art Collector: One of the most versatile runners in the prospective Kentucky Derby field, Art Collector enters off a gate-to-wire victory in the Ellis Park Derby. But he won the Blue Grass (G2) with a tracking trip and crushed a spring allowance race by charging from seven lengths behind, so depending on how the Derby unfolds, Art Collector has plenty of options for running styles. A tracking trip seems like the most probable goal.

Honor A. P.: Another versatile runner, Honor A. P. broke his maiden in gate-to-wire fashion and employed pressing tactics when finishing second in the Shared Belief Stakes, but his decisive win over Authentic in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) came when rallying from behind. Look for Honor A. P. to settle somewhere in mid-pack at Churchill Downs.

Ny Traffic: Speed is Ny Traffic's forte, though he's been pressing or stalking the pace as of late, most recently when charging hard to finish second in the Haskell (G1). His front-running efforts have come in slow-paced races, so I don't expect Ny Traffic to wind up on the lead. He won't be far behind though and can apply pressure if the pace starts to slow down.

King Guillermo: Victorious in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) when pressing the pace, King Guillermo rated nicely when tracking a fast pace in the second division of the Arkansas Derby (G1), battling on to gain the runner-up spot. But King Guillermo broke his maiden in gate-to-wire fashion and has been training up a storm with one fast workout after another. Coming off a four-month layoff, King Guillermo could potentially flash more speed than usual and challenge Authentic for early supremacy.

Thousand Words: This versatile son of Pioneerof the Nile has won with multiple running styles, most recently wiring the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar. But with stablemate Authentic looming as a pure front-runner, Thousand Words seems more likely to revert to the pressing/stalking tactics that carried him to victories in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) and Robert B. Lewis (G3) during the winter.

Max Player: The Withers (G3) winner is strictly a deep closer, consistently found near the rear of the field. He's proven effective with this style, winning the Withers (G3) and placing in the Belmont (G1) and Travers (G1), so more of the same can be expected in Louisville.

Caracaro: Though he's quick enough to be involved in the early pace, Caracaro ran a strong race with mid-pack closing tactics in the Travers (G1), finishing clearly second-best behind Tiz the Law. Expect Caracaro to settle somewhere in the second tier of Derby runners, maybe a position or two ahead of Honor A. P.

Enforceable: One of the deepest closers in the prospective Derby field, Enforceable routinely drops eight or nine lengths off the early pace, and he might find himself even farther behind than usual in the large Kentucky Derby field.

Rushie: Though Rushie's two wins have come with front-running and pace-tracking styles, he also utilized mid-pack tactics just fine in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Blue Grass (G2), finishing third on both occasions. An uncertain starter for the Derby, Rushie figures to rank among the more forwardly-placed of the mid-pack closers if he winds up competing.

Major Fed: Charging from dead last didn't seem to both Major Fed in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and Indiana Derby (G3), as he rallied gamely to hit the board in both races. This son of Ghostzapper seems most comfortable as a deep closer, and a change in tactics seems unlikely for the Derby.

Storm the Court: A gate-to-wire winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), Storm the Court is never far from the lead and figures to put his tactical foot to use at Churchill Downs. He might lack the pure speed necessary to beat Authentic to the lead, but Storm the Court will almost certainly be forwardly positioned.

Attachment Rate: While this improving colt did show some tactical speed when rallying from a couple lengths back to finish second in the Ellis Park Derby, overall Attachment Rate has been more of a late-running type and seems unlikely to settle in the first tier or two of Derby pacesetters.

Sole Volante: It's a rare day when this tried-and-true late runner beats more than one horse past the stands for the first time, so expect Sole Volante to take back and make one big run at Churchill Downs.

Finnick the Fierce: A son of stretch-running 2011 Kentucky Derby favorite Dialed In, Finnick the Fierce generally emulates his sire with rallies from off the pace, though he's got a bit more tactical foot than Sole Volante and should have a few runners measured first time past the stands.

Winning Impression: Possesses a profile very similar to Finnick the Fierce, interspersing a series of late-rallying efforts with an occasional flash of positional speed. Tackling a large field of fast horses in the Derby, Winning Impression figures to settle in the back half of the pack early on.

Necker Island: Though usually positioned within a few lengths of the early leaders, Necker Island consistently finds himself racing in mid-pack, and occupying such a position in the Derby will likely place him farther off the pace than usual.

Shirl's Speight: A gate-to-wire debut winner at Woodbine, Shirl's Speight subsequently employed pace-tracking tactics to win the Marine (G3). Considering Speightstown has never run on dirt—and has no experience racing through kickback—his best hope for a clean trip in the Derby is to come out running and secure a forward position, perhaps even pressing Authentic.

Money Moves: While not a front-runner, Money Moves has plenty of tactical speed, as he displayed when pressing quick fractions of :23.04, :45.66, and 1:10.06 en route to victory in a 1-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park. He figures to settle in the first half of the Derby field if he competes.

First Line: Never worse than third at the first call of a race, First Line pressed the pace when breaking his maiden going 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga, but probably lacks the pure speed necessary to settle in the first tier of Derby pacesetters.

So where does this leave us? Let's break the Derby contenders down into four categories based on expected running styles:


Shirl's Speight


Art Collector
First Line
King Guillermo
Ny Traffic
Money Moves
Storm the Court
Tiz the Law
Thousand Words


Attachment Rate
Honor A. P.
Necker Island


Finnick the Fierce
Major Fed
Max Player
Sole Volante
Winning Impression

With so many potential speed horses in the mix, I'll be surprised if the 2020 Kentucky Derby produces a slow pace. A sub-:47 half-mile should be a certainty, with a sub-:46 half-mile within reach if the track is playing fast.

Such a scenario would make the favorites formidable. Tiz the Law, with his tactical speed and tractability, is capable of settling in the perfect position no matter what scenario unfolds. Honor A. P. figures to thrive as a mid-pack closer rallying into fast fractions, and Art Collector is versatile enough to settle behind the leaders if required

On the other end of the spectrum, I won't be too keen on playing pure speed horses for the Derby exotics. Authentic and King Guillermo, while undeniably talented colts, could struggle to see out the 1 1/4-mile distance if the pace is rapid. Instead, I'll look for a closer or two to come running late and crash the superfecta at a price, with Caracaro, Enforceable, and Sole Volante among the more interesting options.

How do you think the pace of the 2020 Kentucky Derby will unfold?


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!


The Road to the Kentucky Derby handicapping challenge is back for the sixth straight year! Check out the Road to the Kentucky Derby contest page for more details.

J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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

Recent Posts

More Blogs