There’s nothing like the Kentucky Derby. It is Americana built upon 145 years of tradition mixed in with its pageantry and the allure of the big score.
Over $145 million was bet on the Kentucky Derby last year, equivalent to sports betting’s version of the Powerball. Obviously, the winner doesn’t take it all, as horse racing has a pari-mutuel pool structure, but you better believe everyone wants a big chunk of the Derby pot.
I got a good piece of the Derby pie the last three years as a result of my Pace Thesis hitting the chalky trifecta box in 2016, singling Always Dreaming to end a Pick 3 in 2017 (while winning a handicapping media award), and last year scoring with a $50 straight exacta with Justify over Good Magic that returned over $1,700.
Now the pressure is really on for me to live up to the expectations that I’ve set in the past three 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 2019 Derby horse and how post position affects where they’ll sit early in the race.
- Evaluate historical trends in the last 18 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 2019 Kentucky Derby pace will be moderate, but will not cause a pace meltdown, resulting in forwardly-placed and stalking horses to have the best shot to win and hit the board.
1. 2019 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 2019 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 for 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/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 (Pink)
- The number next to the running style is the horse’s speed points (rated 0 to 8 with 8 being the fastest early speed – more info about speed points can be found at the 2019 Kentucky Derby Pace Preview here).
Let’s start “designing” the 2019 Kentucky Derby with the horses that are expected to be on or near the lead and build from there.
1.a. Early Speed
In the past, a horse with the Early running style has set the pace in the Kentucky Derby. This year, with the unfortunate scratch of #12 Omaha Beach, there are is no horses rated with an Early running style.
The chart below shows that a horse with an Early speed rating has set the pace in 16 of the last 18 years:
This year is going to be different, though. The story of the Derby is the early speed drawn inside, starting with the dreaded rail draw for #1 War of Will. With the scratches of Omaha Beach and Haikal, though, War of Will now leaves from the 2-post, making his break from the gate much more bearable. Grade 3 Lecomte and Grade 2 Risen Star winner has been anxious to work at Churchill lately and busted from the gate in a workout at Keeneland recently after his debacle in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, where he bottomed out leaving the gate and almost seriously injured himself for trainer Mark Casse. Jockey Tyler Gafflione has no choice, but to gun it from the rail to not get trapped inside early. Casse said after the post-position draw, “Our horse is really on his game so he’ll come away from there running. We’ll probably be on the lead. I think we’ll probably be on the lead and play catch me if you can.”
#6 Vekoma is another that will want to be forwardly placed, as he pressed the fastest pace in the last round of Derby preps winning the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes. The George Weaver-trainee worked a bullet at Palm Beach Downs in Florida over the weekend with Hall-of-Famer Javier Castellano up for the ride and is sharp coming into the race. Weaver has said he wants Vekoma in the first tier of horses early in the Derby.
The horse that was a likely pacesetter before the draw was Grade 1 Florida Derby winner #7 Maximum Security, but now sitting in the 7-post with early speed to his inside, he’ll likely sit off the two front-runners War of Will and Vekoma early. Trainer Jason Servis has trained Maximum Security to relax in the morning with long works, which is his usual training style, so jockey Luis Saez will likely not be all out early in the Derby.
The mystery horse in the early flight of runners will be #5 Improbable, who has been reluctant to relax early in his workouts over the Churchill strip, after his runner-up finish in the Arkansas Derby for two-time Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert. Irad Ortiz, Jr. has been known to wrangle back his mounts, but may not have a choice if Improbable is eager to go early.
#19 Spinoff has good early speed, as he showed in his runner-up Louisiana Derby performance, but will be hard pressed not to be hung wide early under Many Franco leaving from the 19-post. The trainee for two-time Derby winner Todd Pletcher idled late in the Louisiana Derby and was caught by By My Standards, so visually his ability to go long has to be questioned.
Below is an early pace prediction of how the first 15 horses will line up going into the first (“clubhouse”) turn and onto the backstretch of Churchill Downs in this year’s Derby. It is projected that War of Will, Vekoma and Maximum Security will vie for the early lead, while Improbable and Spinoff will sit fourth and fifth early.
1.b. Pressers & Stalkers
Continuing to run down the horses by early speed in the chart above, as War of Will is sent on the rail, Junior Alvarado on #2 Tax will have no other choice but to follow him. The former claimer and Danny Gargan-trainee possesses good early speed, as was shown when he sat behind a swift pace on his way to a runner-up finish in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. He drew the rail in that race and in his Grade 3 Withers win and still ran triple-digit Brisnet speed figures in both races, so maybe he excels on the rail. He has the pedigree to go long, too.
Grade 2 Louisiana Derby winner #3 By My Standards may be caught in no man’s land if he doesn’t break sharp and get involved with the early speed drawn to his inside and outside. Before the draw, he was projected to be more of a mid-pack runner but will be involved with this second group now under Gabriel Saez. By My Standards has been the Churchill workout hype horse all month for trainer Bret Calhoun, but his pedigree sired by two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents may limit him going the 1 1 /4 mile of the Kentucky Derby.
#4 Gray Magician got into the Derby as the runner-up in the Group 2 UAE Derby and is another that will need to keep up early, but doesn’t have the United States class to match up here. His trainer Peter Miller is known for his sprinters, but said after the draw, “We plan to take back early (with Drayden Van Dyke up).” Projecting him to sit eighth or ninth early may be ambitious after hearing that quote.
#21 Bodexpress has drawn off the Also Eligible list with the unfortunate scratch of Omaha Beach. From the far outside 20-post, he’ll really have to motor to get in position early under jockey Chris Landeros, like he did running second in the Grade 1 Florida Derby the whole way around the track behind Maximum Security. The Gustavo Delgado-trainee doesn’t have burner speed to heat up the pace drawing in from so far outside and should sit in the top 7 leaders early.
With a moderate pace projected, the horses will really start to be bunched up on the backside and this mid-pack group will race tightly together.
With so much speed drawn inside, Eclipse Award-winning jockey Jose Ortiz on #8 Tacitus will have every opportunity to suck up behind the leaders and get a cozy rail trip saving ground. The Grade 2 Wood Memorial winner overcame adversity being bumped early in the Wood Memorial and also won the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby sneaking up the inside, so will look for a similar trip. Trainer Bill Mott has yet to win a Kentucky Derby in his illustrious Hall-of-Fame career and Tacitus may be his best shot yet.
The two Baffert charges drawn to the outside, #16 Game Winner and #17 Roadster, also will look to get over from their posts and get into good position early. Both have shown the ability to either be forwardly-placed or sit back early. With their outside posts, they will probably need to use off-the-pace tactics to have their best shot at winning. The Eclipse-award winning juvenile champion Game Winner hasn’t won a race in 2019, but sat in mid-pack before winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile under regular jockey Joel Rosario over this same Churchill track. Game Winner was moving late in the second division of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes and lost by a nose to Omaha Beach, so is a top choice here. Roadster fell way back to the rear of the field before exploding to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in early April and may need to do the same thing here under his new jockey Florent Geroux.
Finishing up the mid-pack horses in the chart above, trainer Steve Asmussen probably wanted a better post for #18 Long Range Toddy, since he would like to be more forwardly-placed. The winner of the first division of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes will find it tough to get involved early from his outside post. UAE Derby winner #9 Plus Que Parfait and Grade 3 Sunland Derby winner #10 Cutting Humor will break from the middle of the gate and both may run mid-pack throughout the race.
Not shown in the chart above are the closers in the race and two of the horses rated as Sustained (S) running styles (meaning they will look to put in one sustained closing run) may be in mid-pack: #13 Code of Honor and #14 Win Win Win.
Shug McGaughey won the 2013 Kentucky Derby with Orb coming off the pace and Grade 2 Fountain of Youth winner Code of Honor will look to do the same for his Hall-of-Fame trainer. Code of Honor has two-time Derby winner and Hall of Famer John Velazquez aboard, so he’s in the right hands to make a run, but his pedigree may limit him going this long.
On the flip-side, jockey Julian Pimentel has never even ridden a race at Churchill Downs and will have his first-ever Derby mount on Win Win Win. Pimentel regains the mount on Win Win Win after Irad Ortiz, Jr. rode him in his last two races for trainer Michael Trombetta and will look to keep him nearer to mid-pack than Ortiz, Jr. did. Win Win Win was flying late on a speed-favoring Keeneland track to finish second in the Blue Grass Stakes, so he should be moving late here, too.
It is possible that both Code of Honor and Win Win Win are in front of Plus Que Parfait and Cutting Humor on the backstretch in the Derby.
The three deep closers in the race: Grade 2 Gotham winner #11 Haikal, Japanese invader #15 Master Fencer and Mott-trainee #20 Country House will likely be nowhere near mid-pack in this race. With a moderate pace expected, all three of these runners will be hard-pressed to finish in the top 5 of this year’s Derby.
2. PREDICTING THE 2019 KENTUCKY DERBY PACE BASED ON HISTORICAL DATA
In the 2019 Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis Preview that was posted last week, a slow pace was projected based on historical analysis of this field versus the last 18 runnings of the Derby. Two major things have happened in the last week, though, that have made me re-evaluate this hypothesis and in the final evaluation have this projected as a moderate pace instead:
- The amount of speed drawn in the inside posts will indeed speed up the early fractions.
- War of Will and Improbable have both looked eager to run in their workouts in the mornings and with both drawn inside will need to go early.
Therefore, it is predicted that the first ½-mile of the Derby will be run in 47 seconds flat and the ¾-mile will be run in 1:11.20, ranking it 12th out of the past 19 Derbies for the fastest time at the 3/4-mile point of the race.
Even with the speed drawn inside, overall this field doesn’t have a need-the-lead burner or the sprint speed that once resided in the Derby before the Derby Points Era started in 2013. Additionally, the Derby points system is qualifying “proper” route horses that have the ability to relax into stride after the first quarter mile of the race. Therefore, even if the inside speed needs to be sent to gain valuable forward position into the first time and the first quarter mile is run swiftly, the pace should still slow down in the second quarter and third quarter of this year’s Derby.
The early foot to get on the lead may hinder the early leaders, though, while the horses sitting in the second-tier would benefit the most.
It is unrealistic to think the pace will be really fast and cause a pace-meltdown and allow late closers to get into the picture late. Forwardly-place runners and those that can make a strong run on the far-turn from mid-pack will be the ones you’ll want to bet here.
3. PREDICTING THE 2019 DERBY WINNER
When trying to predict the 2019 Kentucky Derby winner, it should be noted that 12 of the past 18 winners exhibited the Brisnet Early / Presser (E/P) running style entering the race, as shown in the chart below:
Astonishingly in five of the past seven years, horses with the E/P7 designation have won the Derby including Justify, Always Dreaming, American Pharoah, California Chrome and I’ll Have Another. This year, Maximum Security and Spinoff come into the race rated as E/P7 horses.
Besides the first year of the Derby points system, the Derby has been won by a horse that can sit just off the early leader, take over when asked on the far turn and pull away in the stretch.
It’s possible that early pace-setters like War of Will (using up too much energy early to get the lead from the rail), Maximum Security (running into a hotter pace that the Florida Derby) and Vekoma (possibly distance limited) will start fading as they turn from home and Improbable takes over the lead.
A lot of horses will be charging at Improbable in this scenario including my pick to win.
My pick to win the 2019 Kentucky Derby is Tacitus
Tacitus gets a very nice post position leaving from the 8-hole and will have every opportunity to drop to the rail. With rain in the forecast, the rail is usually the place you want to be at Churchill and Jose Ortiz should sit a good trip, hopefully not taking too much mud.
Many will have Tacitus tabbed to be farther back to start the race, but a voyage sitting eighth or ninth early only 5 or 6 lengths from the lead is likely with Ortiz being one of the best front-end riders in the game. After the Wood Memorial, I asked Mott about the tactical speed of Tacitus and he told me, “(Speed) is something he had initially training him before we even ran him the first time. In his first race, he was up head and head for the lead. I’d rather know a horse has it and then you can control it a bit and manage it. He’s certainly not a speed horse, but he’s a horse that can travel mid-pack or better.”
Tacitus should have plenty left in the tank to make a big move on the far turn, as he did in the Wood Memorial, and be in a good position at the 1/8th pole to finish strong in the lane trying to track down Improbable late. The son of top sire Tapit and champion older mare Close Hatches has the right pedigree to excel at this distance.
Tacitus will be my key win play and value play on all my exotic tickets, but all three Bafferts will get play on my tickets, too. With the scratch of Omaha Beach, Improbable may benefit the most by sitting behind the three leaders early and be in position to pounce, if he can settle and not get headstrong early. Game Winner is another must-use on tickets along with his stablemate Roadster that will be making a big move late to the outside.
The longshot play to mix in with these big four is Tax. Yes, Tax. I said on the Magic Mike Show podcast, “If you like Tacitus, you have to like Tax.” Tax was the runner-up to Tacitus in the Wood Memorial by less than 2 lengths and has the pedigree to run on the rail all day in this race. Yes, the 2-post is horrible, but trainer Danny Gargan wasn’t deterred after the draw saying, “I wanted to be on the inside. He’s been in the one hole three times with two wins and a second. He has tactical speed. Now we won’t have to use him much to lay fourth or fifth in the race. I like the horse inside us [War of Will] because he’s a speed horse. Hopefully, he goes. I want to tuck in behind him and sit on the rail. If he doesn’t go, I’m going to come out running and sit on the rail.” I’ve seen the inside two horses get absolutely crushed into the rail in the Derby, so you just have to hope that doesn’t happen to Tax, but at monster odds, it’s worth a gamble.
Therefore, my top five choices in the 2019 Derby are: Tacitus, Game Winner, Improbable, Tax and Roadster.
Please feel free to follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim, as I will be reporting live from Churchill Downs on Oaks and Derby days giving you updates on how the track is playing and photos of all the action!
For my superfecta ticket plays mixing in a couple more longshots, please check out the Racing Dudes Inside Track to the Kentucky Derby Wagering Guide here with my full historical pace analysis. We got NHC champion Jonathon Kinchen giving out his two-day, all Grade 1 Pick 6 ticket, Pick 5 tickets from multi-race crusher Mike Somich, plus Oaks and Derby undercard stakes analysis by Aaron Halterman of the Racing Dudes. Good luck to all!