2007 Kentucky Derby Pace
by Trevor Whenham - 05/01/2007
The pace makes the race. That may be a tired cliche, but in a race as big and congested as the Kentucky Derby is, it's a cliche that is very true. To stand a chance of correctly handicapping the Derby you have to not only look at each horse, but also at how the race is likely to play out. It seems that that is even more important this year, when there are so many horses with a similar class advantage. With the general parity of the field, it seems that whichever horse gets the best trip is going to win. Decoding this year's pace is particularly challenging given the lack of horses to fill some key elements, and an oversupply of horses with other running styles.
The pace at the front of the Derby early on is almost always faster than you would expect, due mostly to the excitement and adrenaline that the crowd of 150,000 or so gives the horses. The trick is figuring out which horse is going to be setting that pace. The first and most obvious choice would be Stormello. He's the purest speed in the field, and he has shown a love of the front in the past. The problem is that he hasn't done particularly well on the front. He took the lead in both the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby, but he didn't have the stamina to stay there until the finish line. His trainer, Bill Currin, doesn't want that to happen again, and he is determined to see his horse settle off the pace. Or at least that's what he's saying. That will work only if the horse decides that he is willing to relax and rate in an unfamiliar position.
The only way that Stormello will be able to rate is if another horse wants the lead. There are a couple of potential options. Teuflesberg set the pace in the Blue Grass, but that pace was so glacial on the Polytrack that is seems unlikely that he could do the same here. Cowtown Cat is able to lead, but he won't set a fast pace. Hard Spun's blazing 57 2/5 second work on Monday shows that he is tight and has the speed, but you have to wonder what that work took out for him. He also would likely rather rate just a bit. Nobiz Like Shobiz could also be on the lead if it isn't a blazing pace. The only thing we can be reasonably sure of is that the first quarter won't be among the fastest we have seen. The only things that could challenge that assumption is if Stormello gets away on the lead, or if one of the lesser contenders decides that trying to run away with the lead is his only shot at glory.
Whether it is Stormello or another horse up front, what is clear is that there is going to be an entire cavalry waiting right behind the lead. For seemingly half the field, the ideal scenario would be to settle in a few lengths back, save ground, and pounce in the stretch. If they aren't forced to the lead sooner, then Cowtown Cat, Hard Spun and Nobiz Like Shobiz will all be looking for that trip. So will likely favorite Curlin, Scat Daddy, Any Given Saturday, Sam P., Great Hunter and others. That means that it is going to get congested as horses try to find their running room. With so many horses with a similar style, a couple of things could happen. First, horses could be forced to expend more than an ideal amount of energy in the battle for space. That could burn some horses out before the stretch. The other likely scenario is that some horses will be forced to run a race that they aren't comfortable with. Though both situations are less than ideal, it's impossible to predict which horses will be the unlucky ones, so there is really no reason to spend too much time worrying about what we can't control.
When the field does hit the stretch it could look like an explosion. All of the horses off the pace will be pushing for the lead, and they could all be moving at once. That means that the field could spread out across much of the stretch in the pursuit of room. Unless the early pace horses are particularly game, or have enjoyed a particularly beneficial pace, they will probably get devoured by the second tier of horses, since that is definitely where the class is. That scenario also sets up poorly for Tiago, Dominican and Circular Quay, the true closers in the field. A closer needs a pace that has burned out the pretenders and room to move. Neither seems particularly likely on Saturday.
The post position draw hasn't been as important in recent years as it will be this year. Where the horses start will go a long way to determining who will get the lead, who will find the rail and who will have to move out of their comfort zone. Though the race won't obviously be won at the draw on Wednesday afternoon, it seems likely that that draw will eliminate several horses from reasonable contention. Traffic is also going to be an issue. Nobiz Like Shobiz reacted poorly to being bumped in the Fountain of Youth, and Great Hunter seemed to quit after contact in the Blue Grass. Others, most notably Curlin, have never had to deal with a race as rough as the Derby is likely to be.
There is one more twist to consider that could mess with the pace of the race. Todd Pletcher is entering five horses in the field, and all of them except Circular Quay would ideally like to be just off the pace. With a quarter of the field under his control there is a reasonable chance that he would decide to try to manipulate the pace to his advantage. He could send Cowtown Cat to the front to guarantee a reasonable pace, or he could offer a horse like Sam P. as a rabbit to set up his horses with a stronger closing kick. Whether Pletcher would try to do that, or if he would succeed, is a question for debate, but the mere fact that he could makes this race both more challenging and more interesting.