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
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
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
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.