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Now is when the real Derby work begins.
With the post-position draw complete, the pace of the 2017 Kentucky Derby can be constructed. With 20 horses stampeding out of the main and auxiliary gates, post position is more important than any other race all year and can affect the pace significantly based on where the early speed drew.
My Kentucky Derby pace thesis last year predicted a fast pace set by Danzing Candy from the outside post. It also eerily predicted that Nyquist, Exaggerator, and Gun Runner were the top choices based on their Brisnet running styles, so we’ll try to repeat that success this year using the same formulas.
In this thesis, we’ll take a step-by-step approach to:
1. Look at the running styles of each 2017 Derby horse and how post position will affect where they’ll sit early in the race
2. Evaluate historical trends in the last 16 Derbies to predict if the pace will be fast, moderate or slow
3. Predict the most likely winners based on pace and historical Derby trends
Thesis statement: The 2017 Kentucky Derby will have a moderate pace and the winner will be close to the early pace.
The table below shows the post positions, Brisnet running styles, and Morning Line (M/L) odds for each horse entered in the 2017 Kentucky Derby:
The color code in the table above represents the four types of Brisnet running styles (Early, Early/Presser, Presser and Closer) to show where the early speed resides.
It should be immediately noted that only one ‘Early’ horse, State of Honor, is entered in the race. He has a Brisnet rating of E7 (with E representing Early and 7 being his speed rating from 1 to 8, with 8 being the highest early speed rating).
Trainer Mark Casse has said that he has no problem letting State of Honor get on the lead if he breaks well, so he will likely be involved with the pace from the start, especially leaving from an inside post.
Casse has experimented with blinkers on and off of State of Honor in his past few races, but either way, he has shown an eagerness to get on the lead. He didn’t wear blinkers in the Florida Derby and, after breaking sharply, he was strangled back by jockey Julien Leparoux, then had a late kick to get up for second. Jose Lezcano replaces Leparoux on State of Honor in the Derby and might set a hot pace to help his stablemate, Classic Empire (even though they have different owners).
Drawn just inside of State of Honor is one of the race’s top choices, the Grade 1 Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming. Designated as an Early/Presser (E/P) with a speed rating of E/P7, Always Dreaming should have plenty of speed out of the gate to get the lead if prompted by Hall-of-Fame jockey John Velazquez. Always Dreaming has been aggressive during morning workouts at Churchill and is so sharp right now that Velazquez may choose not to fight him out of the gate and just let him run.
With their post positions and early running styles, either State of Honor or Always Dreaming should set the pace in the Derby. Horses rated E8, E7, or E/P7 have set the Derby pace in 11 of the past 16 years (see chart below), so it’s likely that they will duel early if they both break cleanly:
Another horse that will be running early is the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes winner Fast and Accurate. Owner Kendall Hansen has said that Fast and Accurate (also rated E/P7) will look to get the lead from the 3 post, but is he is fast enough out of the gate to get the lead in this group? Additionally, horses drawn in the 1 to 3 posts often get “squashed” into the rail because of the other 17 horses coming over to get position into the first turn, so there are major questions if he’ll be able to contend early.
Group 2 UAE Derby champ Thunder Snow will have the same issue leaving from the 2 post and will be forced to move early. Thunder Snow broke alertly in both of his career starts on dirt, settling quickly into mid-pack, but he won’t have that same luxury here. He’ll need to have a clean break and be forwardly placed into the first turn if he wants to have a chance late.
To round out the expected activity in the first six stalls, the Steve Asmussen-trained Lookin At Lee will fade back from his dreaded 1 post. Jockey Corey Lanerie will hug the rail throughout, waiting for his late run. The other Asmussen charge, Untrapped, will also be squeezed back at the start from the 4 post.
After the inside speed clears, the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes winner Irap (E/P6), leaving from the 9 post, will have every opportunity to clear Hence and Girvin to his inside and Gunnevera to his outside. Hence, Girvin and Gunnevera will settle back at the start from their middle-of-the-gate posts.
It also should be interesting to see if the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby runner-up, Battle of Midway, will be able to contain himself and settle early. He’s one of the horses that may unexpectedly go right after the lead from his middle post with jockey Flavien Prat. As a lightly-raced horse running in front of 150,000 screaming fans, he may be charged up out of the gate. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was upset that Battle of Midway was dueling on the blazing hot lead in the Santa Anita Derby, training him behind a work mate to try to get him to settle and go after a target. Leaving from the 11 post, Battle of Midway will still be involved early.
Multiple Grade 1 winner and champion juvenile Classic Empire (E/P6) is perfectly drawn in the 14 path at the end of the main gate. This will give him extra space to operate due to the auxiliary gate. With late runners J Boys Echo and Sonneteer drawn to his immediate inside, and mid-pack runners like McCraken and Tapwrit to his immediate outside, Classic Empire should have no problem showing the most early speed from this group. He’ll be able to track the speeds to his inside, like Irap and Battle of Midway, and settle nicely into the second flight.
Even though no horse has ever won the Derby from the 17 post, Grade 2 Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry drew nicely – he’s a horse that wants to stay in the clear early. He may be able to get over and become part of the first flight with his early speed, and jockey Rajiv Maragh will try to not be wide going into the first turn. Maragh got Irish War Cry to settle in the Wood Memorial, but he has shown signs of being “rank” early in his previous races, so his ability to settle and get a good spot going into the first turn is imperative to his chances of winning.
Gormley leaves from the 18 post and showed stalking tactics to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, a trip that he might try repeating from the far outside. Gormley showed the ability to set the pace in his earlier races, but trainer John Shireffs wanted him to settle behind the pace in the Santa Anita Derby and will look to repeat that approach here.
The other Shireffs trainee, Royal Mo (rated E7), is on the Also-Eligible list, but if he draws in, he would be a pace presence.
Practical Joke and Patch will likely show little to no early speed from their outside posts.
Below is an early pace prediction of how the first ten horses will line up going into the first (“clubhouse”) turn and into the backstretch:
Now that we’ve determined who will be where early, the next step is to determine how fast they’ll go.
Predicting a fast pace is contingent upon State of Honor and Always Dreaming dueling early or an outside horse, like Battle of Midway, gunning for the lead. If this happens, a “pace meltdown” may occur and allow both mid-pack horses and closers to get up in the final strides to hit the board.
Historically, though, this is not the case when we evaluate the “Brisnet Derby Field Speed” (see 2016 Derby Pace Thesis here for more information on this calculation). The table below shows the last 16 Derbies in order of the fastest first 3/4-mile times and lists the number of E8 (fastest early speed horses) in the race with the Brisnet Derby Field Speed:
· The five fastest Derbies had two or more E8 horses entered, including the 2016 Derby, which had the fifth-fastest pace in the past 16 years.
· The seven fastest paces averaged a Brisnet Field Speed of 6.32.
This year’s Derby field has a Brisnet Derby Field Speed of 6.50, ranking it as the fourth-highest in the past 17 years. On the surface, this points to a blazing-fast pace, but without any E8 horses entered and only one E7 in the field, there’s reason to believe that the pace will fall in the middle of the above chart.
The 2002 Derby is a key race to compare to this year’s Derby field. That year, the Brisnet Derby Field Speed was 6.56, very close to the 6.50 of this year’s field. Additionally, the field had no E8 horses entered. War Emblem went gate-to-wire to win the 2002 Derby, the only time that’s occurred in the past 16 years.
In the Derby points era of the past four years, when only one E8 horse was entered (2014 and 2015), California Chrome and American Pharoah were close to slow paces early, taking over in the stretch to win. An all-out pace is not likely this year, with no sprinters to speed up the pace.
A moderate pace is the most likely outcome because of the correlation to the number of early/presser horses in past Derbies. Based on historical analysis, the first 1/2 mile should be run in 47 seconds and the first 3/4 mile should be run in 1:11 minutes, ranking as the 10th-fastest in the past 17 years.
The most likely outcome in the race is that State of Honor will fade after setting a moderate pace and not be involved late. Always Dreaming has the opportunity to either set the pace and go gate-to-wire, or else sit very close to State of Honor early and pounce in the stretch to win the Kentucky Derby, like California Chrome and American Pharoah.
Even though Always Dreaming looks aggressive in the mornings, he settled over the Churchill Downs dirt on April 28 under his jockey, John Velazquez, putting in an eye-catching bullet workout.
Always Dreaming will need to hold off runs from Classic Empire and Irish War Cry late, as they will have the opportunity to win while sitting nearer to the early pace than the many mid-pack and deep closers.
As I stated on the RacingDudes.com podcast, I would be surprised if any horse outside of Always Dreaming, Classic Empire or Irish War Cry wins the 2017 Kentucky Derby.
It should be noted that 7 of the last 16 Derbies have been won by horses who have either E/P8, E/P7, or E/P6 Brisnet running styles (see chart below), so this bodes well for Always Dreaming, Classic Empire, or Irish War Cry to win this year’s Derby:
The one horse that can upset is Thunder Snow. If he can manage a good trip from the 2 post, he’s the only other forwardly-placed horse that can surprise with a win.
With a moderate pace predicted, horses that will sit back early, like McCraken, Hence, Gunnevera, and Practical Joke, may be able to get up late to hit the board, but based on the pace analysis here, they’re not likely winners.
My pick to win the 2017 Kentucky Derby is Always Dreaming. If you have been reading my articles since last July, I have been saying for 10 months that trainer Todd Pletcher will win this Derby, and I’m not backing down now!
I’ll be using Classic Empire and Irish War Cry in my exotic wagers, mixing in price plays like Thunder Snow, Hence, and Sonneteer. I will include McCraken defensively underneath in tickets based on his workouts leading up to the Derby and his love of Churchill Downs.
To see how the Racing Dudes are playing this year’s Derby or to access our exclusive Kentucky Oaks/Derby Wagering Guide, check out the Handicapping Products page.
Good luck to all and feel free to follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim to either congratulate me or ridicule me about my picks!
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