Handicapping author William L. Quirin once called early speed the “universal track bias” and, despite the influx of grass racing and synthetic surfaces, statistics show that Quirin’s observation still holds true today.
Even in the Kentucky Derby, a race that many believe is about as kind to frontrunners as Taylor Swift is to ex-boyfriends, this universal bias has been present. There have been 32 wire-to-wire winners in the Run for the Roses since 1896 — more than three times the number that random chance (based on field size) would predict.
True, in the past half-century that success rate has taken a hit. Since 1967, only half-a-dozen hardy steeds have managed to carry their speed over the entire 1 ¼-mile journey at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Still, that is right in line with expectations, as 18- to 20-horse fields have become the norm in contemporary renewals of America’s most famous horse race.
In this in-depth feature, we will examine both the pros and cons of early speed — or the lack thereof — in the Kentucky Derby.
Determining a Horse’s Running Style
In “Winning at the Races: Computer Discoveries in Thoroughbred Handicapping,” Dr. Quirin outlines a simple, yet effective, method of determining the early composition of a race. He assigns points to each horse based on its running position at the first call in three “ratable” races. Horses that commonly reside in the back of the pack in the early going receive zero points, while animals that usually vie for the lead when the gate springs open receive eight points.
Other running styles fall between those extremes.
I have found these point values very helpful in identifying Derby contenders and pretenders. Not surprisingly given the typical large field and unique distance, the Run for the Roses is generally not a race for one-dimensional runners. Pure frontrunners and stone-cold closers have typically not fared well in Louisville on the first Saturday in May.
“But Derek, but Derek, but Derek…” I hear many of you shouting. “What about Mine That Bird — he came from dead-last to win in 2009 — or War Emblem, who wired the field in 2002?”
Look, I’m not saying that extreme running styles aren’t witnessed in the Derby itself; frankly, we’ve seen that a lot. However, the horses that exhibited those extreme styles were usually just adapting to the circumstances of the big race.
For example, when Mine That Bird rallied from 19th place to capture the roses in ’09, it marked the first time in his career that he had won after being more than 2 ½ lengths in arrears at the first call.
And if you look at the recent gate-to-wire Derby winners, none of them could be classified as “cheap speed” (yeah, I know, considering the purse of the Derby, such a designation might be a stretch for any entrant, period). Granted, horses like Bold Forbes, Spend A Buck, Winning Colors and War Emblem were hardly what one would consider multi-faceted… but they weren’t Going Wild or Spanish Chestnut (the two horses that dueled through a :45.38 half in the 2005 Run for the Roses) either.
It’s also worth noting that, of the 32 wire-to-wire Derby winners, only 12 matched or exceeded the Derby ESR pace par of -10, meaning that most frontrunning winners benefitted from a slower-than-average pace, as was certainly the case in 2002 when the aforementioned War Emblem took the field from gate to wire, with Proud Citizen and Perfect Drift in tow.
So, with all this in mind, let’s take a look at the Quirin Speed Points for this year’s top Derby contenders:
Firenze Fire (3)
Free Drop Billy (2)
Promises Fulfilled (8)
Good Magic (4)
Lone Sailor (3)
My Boy Jack (0)
Bolt D’Oro (4)
Instilled Regard (3)
Magnum Moon (6)
Vino Rosso (4)
Noble Indy (7)
Blended Citizen (0)
*Computed by obtaining data on his foreign races.