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:
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
So where does this leave us? Let's break the Derby
contenders down into four categories based on expected running styles:
Storm the Court
Tiz the Law
Honor A. P.
Finnick the Fierce
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
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
How do you think the pace of the 2020 Kentucky Derby will
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 www.theturfboard.com.