Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis: Part 2

Photo Credit: Emily Shields
Emily Shields

“Pace makes the race” is not just a catch phrase.  Pace is one of the most important factors in handicapping a horse race.  The speed at which a race is run early can determine the likelihood of a winner based on his or her running style.

In this year’s Kentucky Derby with a tight group of equally talented competitors, predicting the pace correctly may be the most important aspect of handicapping the race and more important than any year in recent Derby history.

The importance of pace and data correlation has been demonstrated in Part 1 of this Thesis: Historical Pace Analysis of Past 15 Derbies Aligned to Running Styles.

Now in Part 2, we will start to approach this year’s Kentucky Derby by dissecting the following Thesis Statement:

“By analyzing historical Brisnet running style data from the past 15 Kentucky Derbies, a moderate to fast pace can be predicted for the 2016 Kentucky Derby.”

Part 2 of this Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis will first analyze the factors that could have been used to predict the pace of past Derbies and these factors will then be used to focus on the 2016 Derby:

The Importance of Early Speed

When reviewing the Brisnet Running Style Definitions (see Part 1 for full definitions), it should be obvious that horses demonstrating the “E = Early” running styles would be the most likely horses to set the early pace in any race including the Derby.  The graph below shows what running styles set the early pace* the most in the past 15 Derbies:


*Note: “Set the early pace” is defined as horses leading at the ¾ mile point in the Kentucky Derby

  • Not surprisingly, a horse with the Brisnet “E” running style set the early pace in 13 of the past 15 Kentucky Derbies.
  • Even more remarkable is that 8 of these horses had the highest rated early running style of “E8.”  Based on the highest possible speed points rating of 8 (rated from 0 to 8 slowest to fastest) and “E” horses being defined as “need to lead” types, it would be somewhat obvious that “E8” horses would be on the early lead.  Still, the fact that they have led in 53% of the past 15 Derbies is an interesting point to analyze further.
  • Note: The exception when a “P” horse set the pace was in 2013 when trainer Todd Pletcher added blinkers to Palace Malice (P3) and he blazed fast fractions in the slop.

“E8” & Hot Pace

Since “E8” horses have the most early speed and are “need to lead,” it’s natural that if two horses with these characteristics “hook up” on the front end that they will press each other and a fast pace will ensue.

Again not surprisingly, 7 of the top 9 fastest Derbies in the past 15 year have featured fields with more than more 2 horses entered with the “E8” horse running style (see table below sorting the last 15 Derbies in order from fastest to slowest ¾ mile fractional time):


  • Notably, the 4 fastest Derbies in the past 15 years had at least two E8 horses entered.
  • Additionally, the 6 slowest Derbies in the past 15 years had zero or only one E8 horse entered.

Turning to this year’s Derby, two E8 horses are entered in Danzing Candy (E8) and Outwork (E8). From the table above, does this mean that a fast pace is inevitable? Previous Derbies show that the presence of two E8 horses should at least ensure a pace of 47 seconds to the ½ mile and 1:11 to the ¾ mile (since that was the slowest a Derby was run with two E8 horses entered in the 2008 Derby won by Big Brown).

Horses are not machines, though, and many factors play into this analysis to not make this a straightforward assumption.  Part 3 of this Thesis will dive deeper into the running styles of the 2016 Derby entries after the post draw.  Of note, from a recent work from Outwork behind two Pletcher stablemates, the connections will be looking to possibly rate Outwork off the pace in fears of avoiding “hooking up” with Danzing Candy on the front end.  A lot of plans go out the window once the 20 gates swing open on the first Saturday of May in front of 150,000 screaming plans, though, so only time will tell what will happen. The post-position draw will be another clue to be used in Part 3 of this Thesis.

If we are using the 2008 Derby as a possible pace minimum based on the table above, a few other key things have changed since that Derby that need be evaluated below.

Derby Points System & Safety Factors

The implementation of the Derby points system starting in 2013 is an important factor that must be evaluated as part of this pace analysis. With the change from Graded Stakes earnings, which included sprint races, to only awarding points in races over a mile, the Derby points system has thus eliminated the entry of “pure” sprinters in the Kentucky Derby.  Many of the “E8” horses discussed above were “pure” sprinter types like Trinniberg (E8) who set the third fastest pace in the past 15 years in the 2012 Derby.

Since proper route horses are winning the longer Derby preps and receiving the points to qualify, the elimination of front-end sprinter speed is naturally slowing the pace of the Derby.  This wasn’t seen in the first year of the points system due to fast pace set by the aforementioned Palace Malice, but the pace of the last two Derbies has trended downward.

Additionally with only one pure E8 horse entered in each of the past two Derbies, a natural front end showdown has been lacking.  When Wildcat Red (E8) bobbled at the break in the 2014 Derby, Uncle Sigh (E5) and Chitu (E/P7) set a slow pace with California Chrome (E/P7) stalking close by and taking over late.

Last year, Dortmund was the lone “E8” and got out on the lead with Firing Line (E/P8) and American Pharoah (E/P7) close by.  The result was a “merry-go-round” which was highly criticized as a slow Derby overall.

One other change that occurred after the tragic breakdown of Eight Belles in the 2008 Derby was that Churchill analyzed ways to make the Derby safer, which is good for all involved, but is another reason for slower timed Derbies overall.

Still even with all these new aspects being factored in, this is not the end all that a fast pace cannot exist on Derby day.  “Speed is speed” whether it be sprinter speed or route speed.  With 20 horses jockeying for position out of the gate, the Derby will always have a faster pace than a usual race.

Additionally, with the last two Derbies being slow-paced and many of the same jockeys coming back year-after-year, it would not be surprising for some of these riders to decide to use more early speed to not be led on a merry-go-round again this year.

For example, after the fastest paced Derby in 2001 with a “pace meltdown” upfront, the 2002 Derby was one of the slowest resulting in a similar merry-go-round with War Emblem taking the field gate-to-wire.  The jockeys and trainers also are handicapping the race and it would not be out of the realm of possibilities that one set of connections decides to send using their early speed to get on or near the lead based on their post position.

Brisnet Derby Field Speed

Another reason to believe the Derby pace will be moderate to fast this year is by analyzing a figure being invented specifically for this thesis called the “Brisnet Derby Field Speed.”

Since “E” type horses and “E/P” (Early/Presser) type Brisnet running style horses historically have had the most impact on the Derby pace, these horses’ speed points are being totaled and averaged to calculate the “Brisnet Derby Field Speed” as follows:


From this calculation, the amount of early speed entered in the race can be evaluated better than just looking at the raw quantity of “E” and “E/P” types  entered in the race.  For example, in 2012 only 6 “E” and “E/P” types were entered in the race, but it was the third fastest Derby in the last 15 years.  From calculating the “Bris Derby Field Speed” below, though, the 2012 Derby had the highest “Brisnet Derby Field Speed” at 7.17 (see table below), so this would help correlate to a fast pace:


A clear correlation between fast paced Derbies and high “Brisnet Derby Field Speed” (abbreviated as BDFS going forward) can be seen in the table above:

  • For the 6 fastest paced Derbies in the past 15 years, the average BDFS was 6.40.
  • For the 6 slowest paced Derbies in the past 15 years, the average BDFS was 5.56.
  • Not surprisingly, the 3 middle paced Derbies had a BDFS right in the middle of the fast and slow Derbies at 6.06.
  • Additionally, the three slowest Derby in the past 15 years also had the three lowest BDFS at only 5.20, 4.40 and 5.43 in 2011, 2009 and 2014, respectively, so this is another reason that the correlation cannot be denied.

For the 2016 Derby, the BDFS is 5.83 (as stands as of May 2 with the 20 probable horses).  Therefore, this number would point to a faster Derby than the past two years where the BDFS was 5.43 and 5.64.  Additionally, with only one “E8” horse entered in these past two years, the pace could have been predicted as slower.

Many have pointed to this year’s Derby having a lack of speed entered and this is true that only six “E” and “E/P” types projected as entries.  Still, as was seen in the aforementioned 2012 Derby, only 6 of these types were entered that year and a fast Derby ensued.

Additionally, in 2001 and 2013, only eight of these types of horses were entered and these races still resulted in the fastest and fourth fastest Derbies in the past 15 years.  Therefore, is can be stated that a fast pace is not a direct result of the raw quantity of speed horses entered, but is a product of the amount of speed entered, as can be ascertained using the Brisnet speed points.

For this year with a 5.83 BDFS and two E8 horses entered, this scenario looks a lot like the 2008 Derby won by Big Brown with a 6.11 BDFS and two E8 horses.  The fractional splits in that race were 47.04 and 1:11:14 for the ½ mile and ¾ mile, respectively.  These numbers are a little bit faster than last year and as described above are the slowest that this year’s Derby should be expected to be run.

Part 2 Conclusion

Based on historical Brisnet running styles and speed point data, the prediction for this year’s pace is far from “blazing,” but should be faster than the two previous years.  A moderate to fast pace should ensure fast enough early fractions to allow for some of the mid-pack horses and closers to have a chance late.

In “Part 3: Analyzing the 2016 Kentucky Derby Running Styles & Predicting the Pace,” each horse will be broken down from a running style and pace perspective on where they may sit early in the race.  Part 3 will also predict which horses have the best chance to win or hit the board based on their running styles and the predicted pace.

Full pace analysis, picks, workout reports, horse capsules detailing each of the 2016 Derby contenders, Kentucky Oaks analysis and wagering strategy can be found on our Handicapping Products page or the links below for the “2016 Kentucky Oaks/Derby Wagering Guide” with purchase of a ONE MONTH PRO PACKAGE  or PRO tipsheet May 7, 2016 (Pre-purchase).


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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Our full card KENTUCKY OAKS TIPS and KENTUCKY DERBY TIPS are now available for pre-purchase. Those that purchase our PRO tipsheet for May 7, 2016 will be eligible to download our exclusive 20-page Kentucky Oaks/Derby Wagering guide. Our full card picks will be available for download starting some time May 5th.

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