An Early Look at the 2022 Kentucky Derby Pace

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

From 2003 through 2019, pacesetters struggled in the Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs. Even though gate-to-wire winners have historically been commonplace in the Run for the Roses, the first two decades of the 21st century saw only one Derby winner (War Emblem in 2002) prevail in front-running fashion.

But in recent years, we've seen a distinct shift. Horses employing pace-tracking tactics dominated the Kentucky Derby every year from 2014 through 2018. In 2019, Maximum Security crossed the wire first after leading almost every step of the way, only to be disqualified for causing interference.

Then in 2020, the tide officially turned with Authentic springing a gate-to-wire upset victory in the Kentucky Derby. The following year, Medina Spirit employed the same tactics to cross the Derby finish line in front by half a length. (Medina Spirit's Derby title is under dispute due to a positive post-race drug test, but he remains the winner for betting purposes.)

So does this mean playing pacesetters and speed horses is now the undisputed best strategy for betting the Kentucky Derby? Maybe... or maybe not.

Betting on trends like these is valuable if you join the bandwagon early enough, before everyone recognizes the strength of the angle. The introduction of the Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying system in 2012-13 largely eliminated sprinters from the Derby field and may have played a role in the rise of speed horses as the dominant players. But now that everyone recognizes the power of speed in the Derby, might there be an advantage to betting unheralded off-the-pace types, especially if they offer enticing odds?

I definitely see some appeal to this strategy, and 2022 might be the year to give it a try. Recent editions of the Kentucky Derby have been largely lacking in genuine pacesetting types, but this year is shaping up to be a different story. Even with the defections of San Felipe S. (G2) winner Forbidden Kingdom and Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner Classic Causeway, there's a solid amount of speed in the potential Kentucky Derby field.

For starters, there's Summer Is Tomorrow, runner-up in the UAE Derby (G2). The Dubai raider routinely carves out the pace, and he's capable of running seriously fast on his best day. In the UAE Derby, he set metric splits of :24.72, :47.63, 1:11.81—remarkably fast for a race with no run-up distance. Diving into the fractional Trakus data, it seems reasonable to subtract at least two seconds (if not more) from Summer Is Tomorrow's splits to adjust for the lack of run-up, which means Summer Is Tomorrow's pace fractions were more like :22.72, :45.63, and 1:09.81.

Summer Is Tomorrow is hardly the only potential speed horse in the 2022 Kentucky Derby field. For example:

  • Zozos carved out fractions of :23.27, :47.35, and 1:11.69 when finishing second in the Louisiana Derby (G2).
  • Epicenter wired the Risen Star S. (G2) off splits of :23.79, :47.97, and 1:12.25 and tracked the pace to win the Louisiana Derby.
  • Simplification led all the way in the Mucho Macho Man S. and finished third in the Florida Derby (G1) after dueling for the lead through fractions of :23.67, :47.24, and 1:10.68.
  • Early Voting wired the Withers S. (G3) and finished second in the Wood Memorial (G2) after carving out splits of :23.86, :47.75, and 1:11.59.
  • Messier was right up on the pace when finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) one start after wiring the Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) with fractions of :23.24, :46.94, and 1:11.32.
  • Pioneer of Medina wired a Fair Grounds allowance and pressed the pace in both the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby.
  • Charge It broke his maiden in gate-to-wire fashion and wasn't far off the hot tempo in the Florida Derby.
  • White Abarrio wired a Gulfstream Park allowance last fall, employed pace-pressing tactics to dominate the Holy Bull S. (G3), and wasn't far off the fast Florida Derby pace.
  • Taiba tracked the pace when posting an upset win in the Santa Anita Derby, one start after dueling for the lead in his winning debut sprinting six furlongs at Santa Anita.
  • Morello won the Gotham S. (G3) by pressing fractions of :23.47, :47.77, and 1:13.04.
  • Tiz the Bomb, Barber Road, and In Due Time have won races in gate-to-wire fashion, though they've enjoyed stronger success since switching to off-the-pace tactics.

Suffice to say, that's a lot of speed in the potential Kentucky Derby field. Naturally, we won't expect all of these horses to simultaneously vie for the lead; many (including Epicenter and White Abarrio) have posted their biggest wins while settling behind the early leaders.

But with so many Derby contenders intent on racing close to the pace, we have to ponder the possibility that the race will unfold at a faster pace than usual. The last three horses to cross the finish line in first place did so after setting the early fractions, and what if this emerging trend prompts trainers and jockeys to pursue more aggressive strategies on Derby Day? I can certainly envision a scenario where Summer Is Tomorrow bids for the lead, but is closely accompanied several pace rivals. Even if the quarter-mile and half-mile fractions aren't blistering, the pace could intensify meaningfully through six furlongs and one mile as horses like Epicenter, Taiba, Messier, and White Abarrio crank up the heat.

So even though I often fall in the camp of saying "the Derby pace will be slower than people expect," I'm taking the opposite view for 2022. I believe there's a good chance we'll see a late runner cross the finish line in first place for the first time since Orb in 2013.

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


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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.

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