Perhaps the oldest adage in Thoroughbred racing is pace makes the race. It may have even pre-dated George Smith, also known as famed horseplayer Pittsburg Phil, who is featured in the Blood-Horse 100th anniversary feature in this week’s print edition (see page 20). Snippets from Racing Maxims and Methods of Pittsburg Phil, edited and published by Edward W. Cole in 1908, are appearing Derby week in Blood-Horse Daily.
In a race the nation handicaps, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), the pace scenario is a key element in finding the winner.
A front-running type caught up in a hot pace may not have enough in the tank when challenged in the stretch, much like Bodemeister running the opening half mile in :45.39 and getting caught late by I’ll Have Another under the Twin Spires in 2012.
A soft pace up front may allow a horse to get loose on the lead and when the field turns for home he’s as good as gone, such as War Emblem’s opening half mile of :47.04 and six furlongs in 1:11.75 in 2002. The son of Our Emblem was able to open up in the stretch and win by four lengths.
Inadvertently, Churchill Downs may have changed the complexion of the pace of the Derby when it instituted a points system to select Derby runners over the previous method of earnings in graded stakes. This year’s field will be the fourth under the new schematic.
The points system now rewards runners in the two-turn races as the Derby approaches. Are those the key preps toward the Derby? Yes. However, by relying heavily on 11⁄16-mile races and 11⁄8-mile races Churchill may be providing runners with the best shot of getting 11⁄4 miles, but by excluding a host of six- and seven-furlong races early in the season, those races have been shunned by the trainers of top-quality Derby prospects. Graded races early in the season such as the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. III) and Swale Stakes (gr. II) in South Florida have been replaced in importance by the 11⁄16-mile Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II).
“As stewards of the race, we’re trying to get the best 3-year-olds that are prepared to compete at 11⁄4 miles on the first Saturday in May,” said Darren Rogers, Churchill Downs’ senior director of communications and media services.
Rogers noted that in all likelihood the system has traded the importance of some 2-year-old races, sprint races, and grass races for horses that finish third and fourth in major prep races.
A few examples would be eventual sprint champion Trinniberg, who pressed Bodemeister in 2012; and Keyed Entry, who went :22.63 and :46.07 in 2006. Neither Trinniberg nor Keyed Entry would have had the points to participate in the Derby.
In the point system’s inaugural running, Palace Malice and jockey Mike Smith set torrid fractions of :22.57, :45.33, and 1:09.80 in the slop. Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stable said his colt “flat ran off” while wearing blinkers for the first time and that the sound of (18) other horses “slapping that mud sounded like firecrackers and that goosed him some more.”
As any good handicapper knows, some efforts can be thrown out.
The opening half-mile for the past two Derbys—both with point system runners—has been :47.37 in 2014 and :47.34 last year. In the 10 years before the point system, six of the opening half-miles were run in :461⁄5 or faster, and once it was run in :463⁄5. Using the rule of thumb as a length being a fifth of a second, the last two Derby half-miles have been about five lengths slower, making it that much more difficult for horses attempting to come from off the pace in a 20-horse field.
If this mini-trend holds true, pre-race favorite Nyquist figures to have an advantage as he does best on the lead or just off it, just like California Chrome (2014) and American Pharoah last year.
While two years’ worth of data may not be enough to determine a trend in the Derby pace, Pittsburg Phil amassed a fortune being ahead of the curve.