An Early Look at the 2023 Kentucky Derby Pace

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

Every year around this time, I make a point of analyzing the prospective Kentucky Derby field and determining whether a fast or slow pace is likely to unfold in the "Run for the Roses."

Most of the time, it's not that difficult. Occasionally the Derby will unfold in a manner that defies pre-race projections, but often it adheres to the expected script. Last year I pegged UAE Derby (G2) winner Summer Is Tomorrow as the most likely pacesetter and noted the abundance of other speed horses in the field, ending my analysis with "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."

My actual Kentucky Derby selections turned out a bit disappointing (top choice Mo Donegal finished fifth), but I had the right idea on the pace. Summer Is Tomorrow recorded the fastest opening quarter-mile (:21.78) in Kentucky Derby history, and 80-1 longshot Rich Strike rallied from 18th place to win first prize. So destructive was the early pace, the top nine finishers all rallied from at least half a dozen lengths behind.

But the 2023 Kentucky Derby figures to be different. Unlike last year, there's a remarkable lack of speed in the prospective field. And the memory of Rich Strike's 80-1 upset may encourage conservative riding tactics this year, in hopes of avoiding a repeat of last year's pace meltdown.

Looking through the list of 2023 Kentucky Derby contenders, major names like Florida Derby (G1) winner Forte, Santa Anita Derby (G1) hero Practical Move, Arkansas Derby (G1) winner Angel of Empire, Blue Grass (G1) victor Tapit Trice, and Wood Memorial (G2) winner Lord Miles have all done their best work with tracking or rallying tactics. None of those five have ever set the pace.

The same can be said of Gotham (G3) winner Raise Cain, Holy Bull (G3) hero Rocket Can, Withers (G3) winner Hit Show, Risen Star (G2) runner-up Sun Thunder, Sunland Derby (G3) winner Wild On Ice, Champagne (G1) hero Blazing Sevens, Louisiana Derby (G2) runner-up Disarm, Santa Anita Derby (G1) third-place finisher Skinner, and UAE Derby (G2) third-place finisher Continuar. Some of them have shown tactical speed, particularly Wild On Ice. But none have set the pace in any race.

Two Phil's broke his maiden and gate-to-wire fashion as a juvenile, but he's since turned into a late runner, rallying from seventh place to dominate the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) in his most recent start. The same transformation worked wonders for Confidence Game in the Rebel (G2); after scoring his first two victories in gate-to-wire fashion, Confidence Game settled midpack in the Rebel (as many as 6 1/2 lengths off the pace) before rallying to win in a career-best performance.

Mage led from start to finish in his debut sprinting seven furlongs at Gulfstream Park, but a slow start in the Florida Derby (G1) triggered his best showing to date. The son of Good Magic rallied boldly from last place in a field of 12 to finish second behind Forte.

That leaves five horses among the likeliest pacesetters in the Kentucky Derby field: Derma Sotogake, Kingsbarns, Verifying, Reincarnate, and Jace's Road. Five speedsters might seem like enough to ensure a quick pace, but dig a little deeper, and the pacesetting credentials of several look less inspiring.

Take Kingsbarns as an example. True, he led from start to finish in the Louisiana Derby (G2), winning by 3 1/2 lengths. But the early pace was extremely slow, with Kingsbarns carving out splits of :24.71, :49.60, and 1:14.69. Even a slow-paced Kentucky Derby unfolds faster than that, so Kingsbarns seems unlikely to factor on the front end at Churchill Downs. He won his first two starts after sitting fourth and third in the early going and might wind up even further off the early lead in the Kentucky Derby.

A similar fate may befall Jace's Road, who tracked the slow Louisiana Derby pace from second place. Jace's Road has set the pace once in six starts, wiring the Gun Runner's S. at Fair Grounds after carving out unremarkable fractions of :24.46, :48.18, and 1:12.54. Unless he's aggressively ridden, Jace's Road probably isn't quick enough to force a fast pace in the Kentucky Derby.

Verifying sits in a similar boat. His lone pacesetting effort came when he wired his debut sprinting six furlongs at Saratoga last summer. He's employed tracking tactics in four of his five subsequent starts, including when second in the Blue Grass (G1). Verifying seems likely to secure a forward position in the Kentucky Derby, but to see him on the lead and forcing the issue would be a surprise.

This brings us to Reincarnate, who tracked and pressed the pace in the Arkansas Derby before staying on to finish third. Dashing to the lead might be best strategy for Reincarnate, who led essentially from start to finish in both of his career victories, including a Sham (G3) in which he dueled through fast fractions of :22.28, :45.57, and 1:09.55. It's encouraging to note Reincarnate will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who guided Authentic and Medina Spirit to gate-to-wire victories in the 2020 and 2021 Kentucky Derbys. (Medina Spirit was later disqualified due to a still-disputed positive post-race drug test.)

I would peg Reincarnate as the most likely Kentucky Derby pacesetter if not for the presence of Derma Sotogake. While the Japanese-bred colt is versatile in terms of running style, the abundant speed he showed when dominating the UAE Derby (G2) by 5 1/2 lengths suggests that a front-running trip at Churchill Downs might be his best chance for success.

According to fractional splits from Total Performance Data, Derma Sotogake ran the opening 100 meters (about half a furlong) of the UAE Derby in :08.76, an unsurprisingly slow fraction given that the UAE Derby lacks the run-up distance typical in U.S. racing.

But once Derma Sotogake accelerated to racing speed, he ran like a rocket, sprinting the next 400 meters (about two furlongs) in :21.56. Then he ran another 400 meters in :23.93 (for 800 meters in :45.49) and another 400 meters in :24.24 (good for 1,200 meters in 1:09.73). Even after setting this blazing pace, Derma Sotogake ran his final 600 meters in a strong :37.31 to record a blazing final time of 1:55.81, which stacked up favorably against the 2:03.25 required by older horses to run 2,000 meters in the Dubai World Cup (G1) on the same day. Subtract the opening :08.76 from Derma Sotogake's winning time, and you get a clocking of 1:47.05 for 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles).

Now, all the times listed are for metric distances, so they're slightly quicker than they would be for a race measured in yards. But even with this disclaimer, Derma Sotogake is shaping up as one of the fastest of the few speed horses in the Kentucky Derby field, with Reincarnate the other key pace player. While both are capable of running fast early, the lack of speed in the prospective field presents the enticing possibility of Derma Sotogake and Reincarnate dashing to the front through modest fractions.

Indeed, that's my prediction for the 2023 Kentucky Derby: a modest pace set by Derma Sotogake and Reincarnate. And if my conclusion is correct, then Derma Sotogake could be tough to catch on the first Saturday in May.

Now it's your turn! How do you see the Kentucky Derby pace unfolding?


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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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