Most years, spending time figuring out the potential pace in the Derby, and what it means for the horses involved, is the best use of a handicapper's time and effort. There are exceptions, of course. Last year, for example, no amount of pace study could have told you that California Chrome was going to get an impossibly perfect trip. Hopefully things will be more predictable this year. The problem here, though, is that, for a number of reasons, it's very tough to predict just what is going to happen with the pace this year.
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The biggest challenge, not surprisingly, is Bob Baffert. He trains the two heavy favorites in this race. Both have a chance to be generational horses. Baffert will obviously tell both riders to go out and win the race - they have different owners, so that's a given. He is going to want to be sure that he wins the race one way or the other, though, so he is not going to be keen to destroy the chances of both horses and open it up for someone else. Both horses have won races while setting the pace, and both have speed to burn.
We can be all but certain that the two won't duel up front - or at least if they do it won't be at a suicidal pace. In this way, then, Baffert holds all the cards. He can decide which horse will lead and which will settle, and that will likely determine what the rest of the field does, too. My bet is that American Pharoah goes to the front and Dortmund stalks him. American Pharoah had a lightning-fast work last weekend, while Dortmund was more casual. Baffert could be playing with us, but that scenario fits. Dortmund has shown a tendency to rate in his races, and he is certainly good enough to close on a leader if he can be comfortable. American Pharoah, meanwhile, has a powerful ability to relax while running fast and alone. Most horses get ahead of themselves when that happens and burn out. He could put the thing away from the front if he has his day. He has a lot of room to cover early on breaking from the 18th hole in the gate, but he has plenty of room to move and should be fine.
Aside from those two, there are about five other horses that have the potential to lead. None of the connections are saying they have any interest in leading, but then why would they - if they said they were going to the front and get beaten to it by American Pharoah they just look silly. They might as well play things close to their chests and hope for a miracle.
Mr. Z and Stanford just don't seem good enough to lead in any threatening way. Materiality may be interested, but I'm not sure he is fast enough to sustain an early rush or experienced enough to deal with the pressure. That leaves two. Firing Line has trained great and won on the lead last time out. He's aggressive and talented, but concerns about his distance potential could keep things conservative out of the gate. Gary Stevens is on board, so you can be sure that the pace will be well-read and the horse won't do any more than he can handle. That leaves Ocho Ocho Ocho. He's just not good enough to win a fair fight. His best - and only - shot is to take the lead early, go crazy, and hope something special happens. He's going to go, and he's going to be very aggressive out of the gate because he is on the rail and won't want to get stuck there.
So, we should have Ocho Ocho Ocho on the inside and American Pharoah coming in from outside to set the early pace. Seems like a mismatch. Close behind will be a large group headlined by Dortmund, also likely to include Mubtaahij, Carpe Diem and other lesser lights. The biggest group of the field - nearly half of the horses - have shown tendencies to settle well off the pace and close later on. They are at the mercy of the frontrunners here. Closers generally need a fast early pace to set up their run - they move forward and pass the horses that have tired themselves out early. With so many horses likely afraid of Baffert's duo there is a decent chance that the early pace will be controlled and that the closers will be in trouble.
Of the horses in the back, though, International Star, Danzig Moon, and potentially Frosted are the most interesting. I could see one of these horses getting up for a piece. I can't get past the conclusion, though, that the winner is either going to be setting the pace or following it closely through the half. This is a race that will be run - and won - from the front.
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