Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis: Part 1

American Pharoah - KENTUCKY DERBY 141ST Running (Grade I) - 05-02-15 - R11 - CD - Photo credit: Christine Aplin
Chris Aplin

The puzzle of handicapping the Kentucky Derby is a complex riddle wrapped inside an enigma, but the axioms that build the fundamentals of handicapping still apply in this unique race.

The four pillars of handicapping (Class, Speed, Form and Pace) still need to be examined to determine the Derby contenders just like any $12,500 maiden claimer on a Thursday at Aqueduct. In any race on any given day “pace makes the race” and is of the utmost importance in the Derby.

In this three-part series, the pace of the Kentucky Derby will be thoroughly examined as follows:

Part 1: Historical Pace Analysis of Past 15 Derbies Aligned to Running Styles

Part 2: Factors That Could Have Been Used to Predict the Pace of Past Derbies

Part 3: Analyzing the 2016 Kentucky Derby Running Styles & Predicting the Pace

To start, the importance of pace must be first demonstrated.

Historical Pace Analysis of Past 15 Derbies

The table below shows the past 15 Kentucky Derbies with the winner, where he sat in position and lengths back at the ¾ mile point in the race, the fractions ran in the race at the ½ mile and ¾ mile point and a rating of the pace based on where the times rank in the past 15 years:


*Note: The run-up distance was changed from zero to 34 feet starting in 2009.

Slow Paced Derbies

Just like any race on any given day of the year with a slow pace, a horse most likely needs to stay nearer to the pace to win.

Not surprisingly, in 4 out of the 6 slowest Derbies in the past 15 years, horses that were on the lead or within ½ to 2½ lengths of the lead at the ¾ mile point won the Derby including:

  • War Emblem in 2002 – only horse in last 15 years to go gate-to-wire in the Derby
  • Smarty Jones in 2004 – 2½ lengths back at ¾ mile point
  • California Chrome in 2014 – ½ length back at ¾ mile point
  • American Pharoah in 2015 – 1½ lengths back at ¾ mile point

In the slowest paced Derby in the last 15 years, Animal Kingdom in 2011 used his pressing style to sit 6 lengths off the lead to win.  Even in that Derby, Animal Kingdom needed to keep “in touch” with the leaders early, even though he was sitting in 10th at the ¾ mile point.

The outlier for slow-paced Derbies was in 2009 when Mine That Bird closed from 14 lengths back to win, but that was one of the most unforeseen and unlikely results in Derby history, so it will be looked at as a true anomaly in this analysis.

Fast Paced Derbies

In contrast, when a fast pace ensues, the pace may “melt down” on the front end and set it up for mid-pack runners and closers.

To that point, in the 4 fastest Derbies in the past 15 years in each case the winner pressed from mid-pack or closed from 6½ to 14¾ lengths back at the ¾ mile point in the race:

  • Monarchos pressed in mid-pack 7½ lengths back at the ¾ mile point in 2001 into the fastest pace to win.
  • Giacomo closed from 14¾ lengths back into at the ¾ mile point in 2005 into a fast pace to win.
  • I’ll Have Another pressed in mid-pack 6½ lengths back at the ¾ mile point in 2012 into a fast pace to win.
  • Orb closed from 14½ lengths back at the ¾ mile point in 2013 into a fast pace to win.

Aligning Running Styles to Pace

Additionally in each slow or fast paced case, the Brisnet running style of the winning horse coming into the race almost perfectly aligned itself with how the horse ran and won the race.

For those not familiar with the Brisnet Run Style Definitions, please see the descriptions below from the website and summary:

  • The run style of the horse is E = Early, E/P = Early/Presser, P = Presser, S = Sustained or Closer.
  • The number next to the run style represents the early speed points. The numbers range from 0-8 and measure the Early Speed of the horse based on its running position and beaten lengths at the first call of recent races.  The higher the number, the more early speed a horse has shown in recent races.


To align running styles to the Derby results (see the 4th and 5th column in the table above), in the 6 slowest Derbies in the past 15 years, the winner was an Early (E), Early/Presser (E/P) or Presser (P) style runner, meaning that they naturally wanted to be nearer to the early slow pace including:

  • 2002 – War Emblem (E6)
  • 2004 – Smarty Jones (E/P7)
  • 2009 – Mine That Bird (E/P4)
  • 2011 – Animal Kingdom (P3)
  • 2014 – California Chrome (E/P7)
  • 2015 – American Pharoah (E/P7)

Even Mine That Bird that closed from 14 lengths back at the ¾ mile mark into a slow pace still came into the Derby rated as an E/P4 (early/presser) by Brisnet.

On the other end of the spectrum, in 2 out of the 4 years of fast-paced Derbies, the winner came into the race displaying the Presser or Closer running style, meaning that they more naturally wanted to lay back off the hot early pace and make one run late.  These two horses include Monarchos (S3) in 2001 and Orb (P3) in 2013 that both closed into hot paces to win the Kentucky Derby.

Part 1 Conclusion

From the correlations above, the importance of pace cannot be underestimated.  In Part 2 of this Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis, factors that could have been used to predict the pace of past Derbies will be evaluated including how much early speed was entered in the Derby and how the speed played out in various scenarios.

Full pace analysis, picks, horse capsules detailing each of the 2016 Derby contenders, Kentucky Oaks analysis and wagering strategy can be found on our Handicapping Products page or at the link below for the “2016 Kentucky Oaks/Derby Wagering Guide” with purchase of a ONE MONTH PRO PACKAGE .


Purchase our ONE MONTH PRO PACKAGE anytime before May 6th and receive our full card KENTUCKY OAKS TIPS, KENTUCKY DERBY TIPS and PREAKNESS TIPS for no additional charge. As an added bonus you will also receive our exclusive 20-page KENTUCKY OAKS/DERBY WAGERING GUIDE ($25 value). This standalone product contains horse capsules for each of the horses running including: Jockey, Trainer, Projected Odds, Running Style, Last 5 Races, Pros, Cons & Bottom Line along with wagering strategy including trifecta, superfecta and Oaks/Derby double approach. We’ve also included historical pace analysis including late pace numbers to help pick longshots to hit the board. If that’s not enough, this guide includes the running styles for the last 15 Kentucky Derby winners, a Kentucky Derby workout report and picks for the Oaks and Derby from multiple professional handicappers.


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