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Kentucky Derby Pace

If you handicap horse races throughout the year you know how important understanding pace and race shape is. Attempting to apply typical handicapping angles to the Kentucky Derby, related to pace, is challenging. With 20 horses going a distance most have never been before, and in front of 150,000 people, the energy and adrenaline of both horse and rider can be high.

In 2022, the pace was extremely fast and led to a legendary meltdown where the top 9 finishers came from 8th place or farther back. Happy Jack (18th early) was the only horse sitting 13th or farther back in the early stages to not make it into the top 9. Rich Strike, a ridiculous 80-1 outsider who had been in a claiming race a few starts earlier, ended up closing resolutely for the win. Had one known the pace would be that fast, and contested, the money was there to be had.

What about 2023?

Many hypothesize riders will be much more reluctant to engage early given what happened last year. But history doesn't support this. In 2005, the pace was quarterhorse-like. They went the same :45.1 half that the front runners went last year. And, just like last year, the winner was an outsider traveling near last early who closed by everyone to win (Giacomo). So did the riders over-correct in 2006? No. They went :46 flat for the half. Barbaro won the race sitting about 3 lengths from the lead early. But he appeared to be a superhorse that was Triple Crown material if not for the injury suffered in the Preakness. Those traveling near the lead finished 20th, 19th and 17th. In other words, the pace was typically fast in 2006.

In the last 37 years, since Ferdinand won in 1986, the average half-mile time is :46.2. There were only 3 Derby's in those 37 years that produced a half-mile slower than :47.1. The theory is that due to the large field, riders might ask a bit more from their horse to hold or get position. With the crowd noise and action on both sides, that horse might be impossible to "reel" back in once he's gained position. Have 2, 3, 4 or more of those efforts (which is usually the case) and the best laid plans to rate go by the wayside. The pace is fast.

Consider this. 10 times since Ferdinand, the Kentucky Derby winner either set the pace or sat right on the pace. Bob Baffert had 5 of them and Jason Servis (if you count Maximum Security) had 1. Take from that what you will but for this point we'll discount those two trainers. That means there were 4 speed types that won the Kentucky Derby from the last 31 (discounting Baffert and Servis wins). Two of those came on a sloppy track (Go for Gin and Always Dreaming).

Generally speaking, speed types suffer in the Kentucky Derby. There aren't many who want to be on the lead in the field for 2023. That could mean a slow pace. Or it could mean 4 or 5 try to get control assuming the others will drop back. From this corner, we'll assume the pace is sub :47 (as it normally is) and go from there.

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