“The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” is analyzed and prognosticated for thousands of hours. With 20 horses breaking from the Kentucky Derby starting gate each year, the possible permutations are astronomical in terms of the different scenarios in which the race will be run and won.
Luckily for you, my third annual Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis is here to paint the picture of how the race will unfold based on the attributes of each horse and the historical analysis of every Derby that’s been run this millennium.
In its inaugural edition, the Pace Thesis predicted that Danzing Candy would set a fast pace, benefitting Exaggerator to finish second, with Nyquist the most likely winner. Last year, the Pace Thesis predicted that Always Dreaming would sit off of a moderate pace set by State of Honor before capturing the Run for the Roses. In doing so, Always Dreaming helped me win the Ron Rippey Award for Handicapping Media.
Now the pressure is really on for me to live up to the expectations that I’ve set in the past two years! In order to repeat that success this year using the same pace formulas, we’ll take a step-by-step approach to:
- Look at the running styles of each 2018 Derby horse and how post position will affect where they’ll sit early in the race
- Evaluate historical trends in the last 17 Derbies to predict if the pace will be fast, moderate, or slow
- Predict the most likely winner based on pace and historical Derby trends
Thesis statement: The 2018 Kentucky Derby’s early fractions and pace will be moderate and will not cause a pace meltdown, resulting in horses in the stalking and mid-pack groups having the best shot to win and hit the board.
1. 2018 DERBY POST POSITIONS & RUNNING STYLE ANALYSIS
For those not fluent in horse racing lingo, the pace of a horse race is defined as how fast the early leaders will go and how the race will develop.
The table below shows the post positions, Brisnet running styles, and morning line odds for each horse entered in the 2018 Kentucky Derby:
Horses naturally demonstrate a type of running style in which they’re the most comfortable and will find the most success. Analyzing all 20 Derby horses’ running styles is imperative to predicting how the race will unfold.
Horses’ running styles are defined by many services, including Brisnet, and the color code in the table above represents the four types of Brisnet running styles:
- E for Early – horses that will show early speed and need to lead (Green)
- E/P for Early/Presser – horses that will want to be nearer to the early pace and stalk (Yellow)
- P for Presser – horses that will be in the middle of the Derby pack (Orange)
- S for Sustained or Closer – horses that will be farther back to start the race and will look to make one sustained run late
Let’s start “designing” the 2018 Kentucky Derby with the horses that are expected to be on or near the lead and build from there.
1.a. Early Speed and Pressers
In the chart above, it should be immediately noted that only one E-type horse is entered in the Derby: the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes winner #3 Promises Fulfilled (E8). He has a Brisnet rating of E8 (with E representing Early and 8 being his speed rating from 1 to 8, with 8 being the fastest early speed rating).
Horses rated E8, E7, E6, or E5 have set the Derby pace in 15 of the past 17 years (see chart below), so it’s likely that as the only E-rated horse, Promises Fulfilled will lead early if he breaks from the gate cleanly.
Not only is Promises Fulfilled the only E8 horse in the race, he’s never trailed at the 1/2-mile or 3/4-mile point in any of his five lifetime races. Additionally, his trainer Dale Romans recently stated, “Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be the horse in front of him trying to get ahead of him, at least if they’re trying to win.”
Based on these factors, it’s indisputable that Promises Fulfilled will be motoring from the inside 3 post and is the likely leader as the Derby field makes its way around the clubhouse turn into the backstretch. The main question is, will any other horse try to run with him?
The Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes victor #4 Flameaway (E/P6), has drawn to the immediate outside of Promises Fulfilled. The Mark Casse trainee has been on the lead at the first call in two of his past three dirt starts. When he was bumped at the start of the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, he was unable to take command, but Flameaway has done his best running when on the lead or near it. If any horse decides to go with Promises Fulfilled early, it will be Flameaway.
The likely horse to sit to the outside of Promises Fulfilled and Flameaway while a few paths in the clear is the likely Derby favorite and Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby winner, #7 Justify (E/P7). His Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert drilled him in his final Derby workout by starting 5 lengths behind a workmate, so it’s likely that he’ll rate behind the leaders. Justify is not a “need the lead” type and was able to rate off of cheap speed against allowance company in his second career start. His Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will have him sit off of Promises Fulfilled and Flameaway early, ideally in third place.
The European invader #14 Mendelssohn (P4) won the Group 2 UAE Derby in Dubai in gate-to-wire fashion and will look to show early foot under top jockey Ryan Moore. Even though he’s listed as a P4 type in the Brisnet chart above, that’s based on the fact that he sat fourth early in his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf win at Del Mar back in November. Mendelssohn was also able to sit third early in his 2018 debut over the all-weather track in Dundalk, Ireland. The likely second choice, Mendelssohn is trained by the world-renowned Aidan O’Brien and, like Justify, can settle early and isn’t a “need the lead” type. Leaving from a good outside #14 post, Moore will be able to see the speed to his inside and set up shop in the clear to the outside of Justify, if desired.
The horse that will look to press Mendelssohn in the first pack may be the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby winner #19 Noble Indy (E/P7). In an attempt to apply pressure to Mendelssohn (the biggest threat to the American contingent), it’s likely that Noble Indy tries to stick to the outside of Mendelssohn’s hip throughout the early running of the race. Placing Noble Indy forwardly gives him the best chance to hit the board in the race. Trained by Todd Pletcher (who has three other entries in the Derby), and partly owned by WinStar Farm (who also have part-ownership in Justify and Audible), Noble Indy could serve a dual purpose if Mendelssohn is also forwardly placed. If Noble Indy can apply pressure to Mendelssohn, then it could set up well for the other horses in the ownership group. It should also be noted that Repole Stable, the other co-owner of Noble Indy, also co-owns Vino Rosso, a horse that would benefit by a worn-out Mendelssohn retreating.
1.b. Middle of the Pack
After those first five, there will be a scrum of horses looking to get good position in the second group.
#11 Bolt d’Oro (E/P4), the Grade 1 FrontRunner winner and Santa Anita Derby runner-up, was worked fast early by three-time Derby-winning jockey Victor Espinoza in his penultimate workout for the Derby on April 22 at Santa Anita. Owner/trainer Mick Ruis has always said that he’d like Bolt to use his speed earlier in races, and he’ll need to use his natural quickness to get a coveted stalking position in the second pack after leaving from the 11-hole.
Dual Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown will want his best Derby prospect, the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes victor and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion #6 Good Magic (P4), to find a good spot in the second group under his Eclipse-winning jockey Jose Ortiz. Brown said on a recent NTRA conference call that he wants Good Magic placed in the top 10 runners to start the race. It’s likely that he should be able to get position on the rail in sixth or seventh early and be able to “suck in” behind the leaders.
#16 Magnum Moon (E/P6) went gate-to-wire to win the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, but that was the first time in his career that he used those tactics, so jockey Luis Saez is likely to have him settle in the middle of the second group, dropping over from the outside #16 post for the Pletcher team.
Fellow Pletcher trainee #5 Audible (E/P4) is another horse that will vie for contention in this second flight of runners. Audible was able to win the Grade 1 Florida Derby by sitting back 11 lengths off of Promises Fulfilled’s hot pace to start the race. Even though he’s rated an E/P4, it’s possible that he uses similar tactics in the Kentucky Derby under his Hall-of-Fame jockey Javier Castellano. Castellano, who can give a well-timed ride better than any jockey in racing, might be fine with dropping Audible back slightly behind the first group and finding position in mid-pack.
Other horses that have shown the running style to be part of this second pack include #13 Bravazo (E/P5), #17 Solomini (P4), and #12 Enticed (P3). Solomini will drop over from his outside post and is the grinder type that can run even fractions that will allow him to stay around late in the Derby. Bravazo will need to rebound off of a miserable run in the Louisiana Derby, while Enticed will look to repeat his win in last year’s Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. Both will leave from the middle of the gate and run in the middle of the pack early.
Below is an early pace prediction of how the first 12 horses will line up going into the first (“clubhouse”) turn and onto the backstretch:
The third pack of horses that will trail early won’t factor into how fast the pace will be, but they will be the main beneficiaries if the pace heats up and the leaders go too fast early. 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 (meaning finish in the top three).
One of the main contenders that will benefit the most from a pace meltdown is the last of the Pletcher trainees to be discussed in this Pace Thesis, the Grade 2 Wood Memorial winner #18 Vino Rosso (S4). He’ll need to replicate the huge move that he made on the turn at Aqueduct that day and will likely lead the last group of runners after dropping over from his outside #18 post.
A horse on no one’s radar at the beginning of the year that’s now trending is #9 Hofburg (P2), the emergent Florida Derby runner-up. The Bill Mott trainee sat back early and was the beneficiary of a hot pace in the Florida Derby, running hard late to place. It’s likely that he’ll look to get in the mid-pack and may be on the tail end of the second group leaving from the #9 hole.
Unlike Hofburg, #15 Instilled Regard (P3) and #2 Free Drop Billy (P2) are two horses that have disappointed lately after starting the year as top Derby prospects. Both will look for similar position in front of the deep closers early in the race. Free Drop Billy will likely take back early after leaving from the inside 2 hole and give his Romans stablemate Promises Fulfilled more room to make an early move for the lead right from the start.
Instilled Regard will be happy to take back from the middle of the gate, with Mendelssohn to his inside and Magnum Moon to his outside both looking to move early.
The Grade 1 Champagne Stakes winner #1 Firenze Fire (S3) is ridden by front-running specialist Paco Lopez in the Derby and may show uncharacteristic speed early if Lopez decides to send from the dreaded 1 hole. This doesn’t mesh well with his natural running style as a sustained closer, but since he’ll be a huge longshot, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that Lopez decides to get him into the race early. With the front stretch rail lining up directly with the 1 post, Lopez will need to make a move quickly out of the gate in order to avoid getting squashed into the rail with 19 foes converging on him.
#10 My Boy Jack (S) is ranked as a closer with no early speed, but he shouldn’t be viewed as a stone-cold closer. Three-time Derby-winning jockey Kent Desormeaux knows when to pull the trigger on My Boy Jack, so he might make his move from the back of the pack as the field hits the top of the far turn. The 10-hole is a good place for him to get over and save ground once the early speed to his inside clears.
#20 Combatant (P) and #8 Lone Sailor (S3) will be in the back of the pack and will need a very fast pace early in order to close late.
2. PREDICTING THE 2018 KENTUCKY DERBY PACE BASED ON HISTORICAL DATA
Now that we’ve determined which horses will be where early, the next step is to determine how fast they’ll go.
Predicting a fast pace is contingent upon either Promises Fulfilled going out by himself and going fast to get distance between himself and the rest of the field, or a horse like Flameaway pressing Promises Fulfilled early.
Historically, though, this is not the case when we evaluate the “Brisnet Derby Field Speed” (a special calculation that I invented for the Derby that’s the average speed points of all E and E/P horses in the field).
The table below shows the last 17 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 each had two or more E8 horses entered, including the 2016 Derby, which had the fifth-fastest pace in the past 17 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 only 5.88, ranking it the 11th-highest in the past 17 years. On the surface, this indicates a slow-to-moderate pace, but with one E8 horse entered, there’s reason to believe that the pace will fall in the middle of the above chart.
The 2004 Derby is a key race to compare to this year’s Derby field. That year, the Brisnet Derby Field Speed was 6.13, very close to the 5.88 of this year’s field. Additionally, the field had one E8 horse entered, Lion Heart. As most E8 horses do, Lion Heart set the early pace with slower fractions of :46.73 and 1:11.80 in the first 1/2-mile and 3/4-mile of the race, ranking as the fourth-slowest Derby in the past 17 years. Since Smarty Jones was able to sit close to the pace over a sloppy strip, he was able to take over in the stretch and win. Lion Heart held on for second, having enough energy left after setting pedestrian fractions, but Lion Heart was also one of the race’s top betting choices; Promises Fulfilled will be a longshot.
In the past four years of the Derby points era, when only one E8 horse was entered (2014 and 2015), California Chrome and American Pharoah were close to the early slow pace before taking over in the stretch to win.
An all-out fast pace is not likely this year with no sprinters entered to speed up the pace, thanks in part to a change in the new Derby points system era. A moderate pace is the most likely outcome because of the correlation to the number of E/P horses in past Derbies. Based on historical analysis, the first 1/2-mile should be run in approximately :47 and the first 3/4-mile in 1:11, which projects as the 9th-fastest in the past 18 years.
3. PREDICTING THE 2018 DERBY WINNER
When trying to pick the 2018 Kentucky Derby winner, it should be noted that 10 of the last 17 Derbies were won by horses who had E/P7, E6, or E/P5 Brisnet running styles entering the race (see chart below), so this bodes well for Justify, Noble Indy, Magnum Moon, Flameaway, and Bravazo:
In four of the past six years, horses with E/P7 running styles have won the Derby, including Always Dreaming, American Pharoah, California Chrome, and I’ll Have Another.
In keeping with that trend, I’m going to go out on a limb and pick the chalk favorite Justify and his E/P7 running style to win the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.
From the pace analysis and post position draw, Justify should get a perfect stalking trip behind the early speeds, Promises Fulfilled and Flameaway. In the Derby points era, the pace has not been fast most years, and even when the pace was fast in 2016, Nyquist still stalked to win, and Gun Runner held on for third after attending the pace. Justify will likely get a similar stalking trip, much like California Chrome in his 2014 Derby win.
Promises Fulfilled is a proper route Grade 2 winner and has shown that he can relax once he gets the lead, like he did in the Fountain of Youth, and Flameaway is not an all-out “need the lead” type, so the pace shouldn’t heat up significantly, as was the trend in recent Derbies.
One other note on the pace: the Derby points races this year have mostly featured slower paces, including the Fountain of Youth, the Risen Star, the Blue Grass, and the Santa Anita Derby, so this is one more reason to think that the pace will be moderate.
To further support Justify as the most likely winner, he has superior speed figures compared to the rest of the field and has earned high marks in all three of his career starts. More importantly, he has the early speed necessary to make his own trip. He needs to overcome the “Curse of Apollo” (that no horse unraced as a 2-year-old has won the Derby since Apollo did so in 1882). As Derby fields increase in the number of more inexperienced starters, though, this factor becomes less important.
If there’s one horse to use in exotics wagers at a price, then it’s Good Magic at his 12/1 morning line odds. He’ll get a very good trip behind the leaders and has been training great coming into the race. Others sitting a good trip that should be used defensively in wagers are Bolt d’Oro and Mendelssohn.
With a moderate pace, closers can still hit the bottom of the superfecta. Vino Rosso, Hofburg, and My Boy Jack are the key underneath exotic plays.
ADDENDUM to this Derby Pace Thesis with the sloppy track conditions, I’m adding #4 FLAMEAWAY as a key underneath play
After this slop, my top 5 are:
My Boy Jack
To see how the Racing Dudes are playing this year’s Derby and to access our exclusive Kentucky Oaks/Derby Wagering Guide, check out the Handicapping Products page.
Good luck to all, and please follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim. I will be providing live coverage onsite at Churchill Downs on both Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby days!