Kentucky Derby Pace Scenario
by Trevor Whenham - 04/25/2008
If you were to try to generalize about the pace scenario in the Kentucky Derby you would say that the huge field and the excitement of the massive crowd will force horses to go out faster than they should, and that will lead to front-runners burning out and the race being set up for a horse to win from somewhere off the pace. There are exceptions, of course - War Emblem took the lead and ran away with it in 2002. For the most part, though, a couple of horses take the lead and kill each other trying to keep it, leaving the field to pick up the pieces. Here's a look at how the Derby pace could set up this year based on some of the horses that are being aimed at the race and have a high likelihood of getting in:
Quick out of the gate
Unlike the last few years, the likely favorite is going to be looking for the lead out of the gate. Big Brown only has three races under his belt, but each time he has found the lead early, set the pace, and then pulled away at the end in an awesome display. Unlike past years, though, he isn't likely to get the lead alone or unaccompanied because too many other horses will want a piece of him, too. One horse that will be right there with him is Recapturetheglory, the winner of the Illinois Derby. He'll capture the imagination of many because that's the same race that War Emblem won before the Derby, and both horses wired the field. People will be a bit more skeptical about this horse, though - he wasn't that highly regarded before the Illinois Derby, and there was a rail bias that he benefited from in that race. In many of his past races he found the lead but couldn't hold on down the stretch.
West coast invader Bob Black Jack will also be right at the front. He set a blazing pace in the Santa Anita Derby and stubbornly held on for second. There are a couple of concerns here, though - he has never run on dirt, and his only win this year came over six furlongs. The distance is a concern, but his ability and desire to stay near the front early isn't. Another California horse. Gayego, will be looking for a piece of the lead, too. He won the Arkansas Derby, and he did it on dirt, too, so he can probably handle the Churchill surface. In that race he hooked up with a longshot early on the lead, stayed up front the whole way, and held off a charge in the stretch. A couple of things are interesting about that race. First, Z Fortune put up serious charge down the stretch, and was actually in the lead for a few strides, but Gayego fought back and pulled away - a good sign after leading that far. He also won the same race that Curlin and Smarty Jones did before him, and he did it in a faster time than Curlin.
Todd Pletcher will have a runner taking a shot at the lead, but Cowboy Cal might not be as desperate for it as others. He set the pace in the Blue Grass and was only barely caught at the end. Unlike some of the others above, though, he can also be patient if needed. In the Tropical Park Derby he set back off a ridiculous pace from a longshot, let the leader burn himself out, and then took control and won impressively.
Just off the pace
There is going to be a crowd up front, and another crowd right behind them. The class of the group that is likely to settle off the pace is Colonel John. He was dominant in the Santa Anita Derby, powerfully moving past Bob Black Jack and pulling away. There is a chance he could be the favorite in the race, and he will have a big share of the support. Right with him will be Tale of Ekati, the winner of the Wood Memorial. He chased down a solid pace set by War Pass to catch him in the stretch. That race wasn't particularly fast, though, so it is unclear what it means going forward. That same day, Monba, another Todd Pletcher runner, won the Blue Grass. He dueled with Cowboy Cal down the stretch and won a close one. As with so many horses this year the switch to dirt for the Derby is a big question.
That's far from the end of the horses that will ideally be just off the pace. Adriano is Edgar Prado's Derby mount, and he is coming off a win in the Lane's End against a solid field. He had an eye-opening allowance at Gulfstream earlier this year, but he was a disastrous ninth in the Fountain of Youth, so there are questions about his ability on dirt and his real talent. Cool Coal Man won the Fountain of Youth, and he was third in the Blue Grass when so many other horses had a lousy day. He will be looking to find an opening late, but I remain unconvinced that he can take advantage of an opening if he can find one.
But wait, there are more. Smooth Air was second in the Florida Derby to Big Brown, but the winner was so clearly in a different class that you could argue that he won one race and Big Brown won his own. He made a powerful move heading into the top of the stretch, and was more than seven lengths ahead of the field at the finish line. He's training well in Florida and could be an interesting horse to watch. One of the fillies that could enter, Eight Belles, also has a habit of sitting off the pace before unleashing a huge move and taking control.
Pyro would probably have been the Derby favorite if it weren't for a truly lousy Blue Grass. He stumbled on the start, but settled into a fairly comfortable position for him - 10th. The problem was that he never fired, and he was still 10th when he crossed the line. In his best races he has settled somewhere off the pace and then overwhelmed his opposition when the time came. There is certainly enough pace in this race to set him up for success if he is in form and if the Blue Grass was just a blip and not and indicator of failing form.
Also at the back biding their time will be a couple of horses with enticing potential but some problems. Big Truck made a huge closing move to almost catch the winner in the Tampa Bay Derby, and he came from well off the pace to win the Tampa Bay Derby easily. Like Pyro, though, he had a disastrous Blue Grass. He never showed anything and limped home just behind Pyro in 11th. Visionaire looked like he was in trouble early in the Gotham, but he moved up nicely and steadily and took the lead right at the wire. He was also last early on in the Blue Grass. He only ended up fifth there, but he was gaining well at the end when so other, better horses were able to do that, so he deserves a look.