Don’t Be Fooled, the Derby Pace Won’t Be Blistering

Start of the 2014 Kentucky Derby.

Start of the 2014 Kentucky Derby.

For the last several weeks, all I have heard is how fast the Kentucky Derby pace will be. I have seen people describe it as “blistering” even, but all I can think when I read this is: Have you all forgotten how the point system has changed everything?

Since the switch from graded stakes earning to points, two of three Kentucky Derbies have seen very moderate paces.

The only year with a “blistering” pace was 2013, when Todd Pletcher decided that the Kentucky Derby would be a good race to experiment with blinkers on Palace Malice.

When the gates opened for that race, Palace Malice broke well, but bolted when spooked by the thunderous hooves surrounding him that he was unable to see. He uncharacteristically shot to the lead and set a torrid tempo, with early splits of :22.57, :45.33, and 1:09.80.

Since then, the last two years have seen moderate paces, at least by Kentucky Derby standards.

Kentucky Derby First Call

In 2014, the pace that was set for the first six furlongs was a much more reasonable 1:11.80. 2015 was run in a similar time of 1:11.29, which is only half a second faster than 2014.

Kentucky Derby Six Furlongs

With this in mind, one has to wonder what has prompted this change? Why has the pace been so drastically different? What role has the new point system played?

The answer, my friends, is the elimination of sprinter/juvenile speed.

When the graded earnings system was in place there were no qualifications on where and when you had to earn the money. This allowed sprinters who ran in rich 3-year-old sprint races and precocious juveniles who didn’t progress as sophomores to enter the field.

The style that gave these types the best chance at winning the Kentucky Derby was to go as fast as they could for as far as they could. This led to the torrid early paces we grew accustomed to seeing in the Kentucky Derby.

Examples of this include Trinniberg, who pushed Bodemeister through an opening six furlongs in 1:12.80 in the 2012 Kentucky Derby; and Conveyance, who never won beyond a mile before the Kentucky Derby. He set such a hot pace in 2010, that the horses sitting second and third at the second call finished 17th and 18th of 20.

Those are just two of the more recent examples of the speed that the old graded earnings system allowed in. If you keep going back, you find more and more examples of horses that didn’t necessarily belong, but were still entered, and wound up playing do-or-die on or near the lead.

The new point system that Churchill Downs implemented in 2013 eliminates sprinters from entering by not giving any points to races under one mile in distance. It also puts more emphasis on races that are later in the prep series, while putting less emphasis on 2-year-old races run in November, or 3-year-old races run in January or February.

This has made it impossible for sprinters to enter, and nearly impossible for a precocious juvenile to get in. Instead, it has allowed later-maturing horses to have the best chance at making the field.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t speed entering the Kentucky Derby anymore, because there is. It is just a different breed of speed. It is classic speed that can be carried over a distance, instead of cheap speed that wilts away early.

Handicappers need to recognize this change and adjust their betting accordingly.

Is there speed? Sure there is!

Is there a lot of it? Most certainly… but it isn’t cheap speed anymore.

Nyquist, Outwork and Danzing Candy all have speed, but only the latter has displayed a need-the-lead running style. Both Outwork and Nyquist, while fast, can press the pace and have shown the ability to relax if unable to achieve the lead.

This sets up for a solid pace, but not a blistering one by any means.

So, what does all this mean? It means you shouldn’t put all your eggs into the basket of a closer. A slower, more moderate pace, like the ones in 2014-15 allow speed to keep going, making it more difficult for closers to run the pacesetters down.

That will be the case this year. We will see a solid, but not a crazy, pace. Remember that when it comes time to place your bets for this year’s Kentucky Derby.

Laura Pugh
Laura Pugh has been in love with horses since age five, when she took her first ride as a birthday gift. When she was nine years old she began to take riding lessons as a hunter/jumper. Her first introduction to racing was watching War Emblem’s Triple Crown attempt and, from there, she was hooked. Her knowledge of the sport was self-learned, as she took to reading every book on the topic that she could lay hands on.

In 2009 she began her own blog named Horsin’ Around, where she earned a reputation for her passionate and fiery articles. It was that recognition that soon landed her a position as author of Dead Heat Debates, one of Horse Racing Nation’s many blogs. Since then she has written for other publications such as and Lady and the Track, always demonstrating the same fiery passion that her followers have come to expect.

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