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
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:
out fractions of :23.27, :47.35, and 1:11.69 when finishing second in the
Louisiana Derby (G2).
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.
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
Charge It broke
his maiden in gate-to-wire fashion and wasn't far off the hot tempo in the
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.