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2020 Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis & Picks
Honor A. P. arriving at Churchill Downs (Credit: Coady Photography)

2020 Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis & Picks

The anticipatory aura in the air as “My Old Kentucky Home” plays while the horses parade on the track before the Kentucky Derby (G1) is unmatched in American sports tradition.

This year, that anticipation – and the emotions that go with it – will only be experienced at home.

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The pandemic that has changed all of our lives caused a four-month delay to the nation’s most popular horse race and brought several ramifications:

  • Instead of the traditional 150,000+ fans filling the rafters, attendance will be limited to only essential workers
  • The Derby is the second leg of the Triple Crown for the first time; the Belmont (G1) was run at the end of June
  • More attrition than usual hit the 3-year-old ranks, creating a very “top-heavy” field with a strong, small group leading the way
  • This attrition helped create likely the biggest Derby favorite of this millennium: the Belmont and Travers (G1) winner #17 Tiz the Law

A silver lining to the delay is that these sophomores have developed and matured over the summer, so they may be more apt to excel at the Derby’s 1 1/4-mile distance now than they would have on the first Saturday in May (when the Derby was originally scheduled). Three of the entries already completed this distance in early August’s Travers, so the usual question “Will they get the distance?” has been (at least somewhat) answered.

So much is different about the Derby this year, but one thing remains the same: We have a great race to handicap, so let’s get to work!

I present to you my award-winning Fifth Annual Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis that takes a step-by-step approach to:

  1. Look at the running styles of every horse and how post position affects where they’ll sit early in the race
  2. Evaluate historical trends in the last 20 Derbies to predict if the pace will be fast, moderate, or slow
  3. Predict how the race will be run, find the most likely winner based on pace, and unearth the best horses to use in the trifecta and superfecta

Thesis statement: The 2020 Kentucky Derby will have a slow to moderate pace and the top four finishers will all likely be close to the early pace.

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For those not fluent in the sport’s lingo, the projected 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, trainer, jockey, and morning line odds for each of the 16 horses running in the 2020 Kentucky Derby:

Horses naturally demonstrate the type of running style with which they’re the most comfortable and will find the most success. Analyzing all 16 Derby horses’ running styles is imperative to predicting how the race will unfold.

While each handicapping service has a slightly different way of identifying a horse’s running style, I have found the most success using Brisnet. The color-coded table above represents the four types of Brisnet running styles:

  • E for Early (Green) – horses that show early speed and need to be on the lead
  • E/P for Early/Presser (Yellow) – horses that will be close to the early pace and stalk
  • P for Presser (Orange) – horses that will be in the middle or near the back of the pack
  • S for Sustained or Closer (Pink) – horses that will be farther back to start the race and will try to make one long, sustained run late

The numbers next to the letters represent speed points: 8 for the fastest horses early, all the way down to 0 for horses with little to no early speed.

Now that you understand a bit more about running styles and speed ratings, let’s start “designing” the 2020 Kentucky Derby with the horses that are expected to be on or near the lead and build from there.

1a. Early Speed / Leaders

Using horses from the above table, three display the “Early” (Green) designation. Horses in this category have historically led the Kentucky Derby, as shown in the chart below:

In 16 of the past 20 Kentucky Derbies, the pace setter was designated as either an E8, E7, or E6, so this year’s pace will likely be set by #18 Authentic, #15 Ny Traffic, or #4 Storm the Court.

The Haskell (G1) winner Authentic, trained by two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert, is the only E8 and will want to be forwardly placed under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. Breaking from the far-outside post in this field of 18, he may not be a “dead-send” for Velazquez, but he’ll likely clear most of the field to his inside with his early speed.

In his gate-to-wire Haskell effort, Authentic got an easy lead with favorable fractions and was able to win by a nose over Ny Traffic, who was bearing down in the final strides. Authentic’s stride was shortening late in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell, so the son of Into Mischief may have difficulty going another furlong in the Derby.

If the final strides of the Haskell are any indication, then Ny Traffic (E7) may excel going longer – though perhaps it was just an illusion, since Authentic was coming back to him. The Saffie Joseph, Jr., trainee closed the gap late after stalking throughout. Ny Traffic could be a pace presence under aggressive rider Paco Lopez leaving from the 15 post, but he has chosen to stalk closely in his last 3 races, all runner-up finishes, that include the Matt Winn (G3) and the Louisiana Derby (G2).

Check out the Haskell replay to see what I mean:

We could see a repeat of Ny Traffic and Authentic setting the pace in the Derby, as #6 King Guillermo  has scratched from the race with a fever and would have shown early speed.

The last of the Early designated horses is the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Storm the Court (E6), but the 2019 division champion has been a great disappointment this year. The Peter Eurton pupil has not won any of his 5 starts this year, and his best finish – second in last month’s La Jolla (G3) – was on turf.

1b. Early / Pressers

The next horse in the early Derby pace mix looms very large as the big favorite Tiz the Law will not let the early leaders get too far ahead of him.

Tiz the Law (E/P7) comes into the Derby with possibly the best contender’s resume in the modern era; he clinched the Belmont and the Travers after winning the Florida Derby (G1) in March, all with regular rider Manny Franco. The son of Constitution is a well-deserved favorite and proved in the Travers that he can excel at this 1 1/4-mile distance, plus trainer Barclay Tagg won the Derby for this ownership group with Funny Cide back in 2003.

Tiz the Law has the right running style to win the Derby. Most of the race’s recent winners sat close to the pace and took control turning for home, a move that he has perfected. From the outside 17 post, Franco should let Authentic clear to his outside and then find an outside stalking trip with a few of the speed horses in front of him.

Check out Tiz the Law’s dominating Travers win:

The Derby wildcard may be the lightly-raced #7 Money Moves (E/P7), who will be the first horse in the Derby points era (which began in 2013) to enter the gate after having accumulated zero points from prep races. Two-time Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher had a choice of three possible entrants this year and opted for this son of Candy Ride who has yet to compete in a stakes race through 3 career starts. He should be forwardly placed under Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano leaving from the 7-hole.

Two west coast invaders, #16 Honor A. P. and #10 Thousand Words, will set up shop behind the top five or six horses going onto the backside and will try to make their move on the far turn.

Honor A. P. (E/P5) made a bold move to easily sweep by Authentic and win the Santa Anita Derby (G1). If he makes a similar move on Saturday, then he will pick off horses quickly under Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who reteams with trainer John Shirreffs after they won the 2005 Derby with longshot Giacomo.

The son of Honor Code has great pedigree for excelling at this distance; check out Vinny Blond’s in-depth analysis to learn more. Last time out in the Shared Belief, Honor A. P. spun his wheels turning for home before finishing second, but that race was at 1 1/16 miles (shorter than what he really wants) and may have been just used as a prep for Saturday.

Honor A. P. and Shirreffs after arriving at Churchill Downs (Credit: Coady Photography)

The winner of the Shared Belief, Thousand Words (E/P3), held off Honor A. P. while taking that four-horse field gate-to-wire, but he will likely sit mid-pack in the Derby. The son of Pioneerof the Nile is a true grinder and should excel at the distance, but he may not have the necessary turn of foot late to compete for top honors.

Another Baffert trainee, Thousand Words was highly-touted to start the year and earned 2 stakes wins, then fell off in the spring, only to have a recent resurgence. Along with Authentic, he will try to give Baffert his sixth Derby win, which would tie for the most all-time by a trainer.

Here’s the Shared Belief replay for you to judge how Honor A. P. and Thousand Words ran:

#11 Necker Island (E/P5) and #13 Attachment Rate (E/P3) are a step below the top of the crop and should sit mid-pack early. Both are sired by Hard Spun, who gives his offspring a good distance influence.

Since trainer Chris Hartman claimed him for $100,000, Necker Island earned a pair of third-place finishes in the Indiana Derby (G3) and the Ellis Park Derby. He will be Hartman’s first Derby starter.

Trainer Dale Romans has considerably more Derby experience and spoiled many Triple Crown races with his longshots hitting the board. He will look to crash this year’s party with Attachment Rate, who was the only horse moving late in the Ellis Park Derby and finished second behind Art Collector before passing him with a big gallop-out after the wire.

Below is a prediction of how the first 9 horses will line up heading into the clubhouse turn for the 2020 Kentucky Derby:

1c. Closers

Pressers and Closers traditionally have little to no impact on the early Derby pace. This year’s group has been a step below the top horses that I detailed earlier, and on top of that, they have a tactical disadvantage because the top horses are expected to be in front of them early. Here is a quick highlight of this group:

  • #2 Max Player (S2) is at the top of the closer crop and has third-place finishes in both the Belmont and the Travers to his credit. After the Travers, trainer Linda Rice was on the fence about taking him to the Derby, so his owners quickly moved him to Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, who shipped him to Churchill Downs to prepare. We shall see how this move works out.
  • #12 Sole Volante (S0) shot up the Derby ranks after winning the Sam F. Davis (G3) in February and did not disgrace himself with a late run to nab second in the Tampa Bay Derby. After a pandemic-related layoff, he easily won a Gulfstream Park allowance but was a complete no-show 10 days later in the Belmont. Trainer Patrick Biancone will need to get him back into form off the layoff in order to threaten Saturday.
  • #3 Enforceable (S0) was also touted early in the year after winning the Lecomte (G3) and running second in one of the Risen Star (G2) divisions. Trained by new Hall of Famer Mark Casse, he has not hit the board in his last 2 races, but closed into a blanket finish for third in the Blue Grass while returning from a layoff. The son of Tapit is a full brother to Mohaymen, who closed to get fourth in the 2016 Derby.
  • Indiana Derby runner-up #5 Major Fed (P2) has run into trouble and endured wide trips in several of his races. The son of Ghostzapper out of a Smart Strike mare, he has distance pedigree but will need to figure out how to get a clean trip, never an easy ask in the Derby.
  • #9 Mr. Big News (S0), a last-minute Derby entrant for trainer Bret Calhoun, is best known for springing a huge 46/1 upset in the Oaklawn Stakes while closing strongly in the slop past a large field. The son of Giant’s Causeway has plenty of distance pedigree, but he crashed back down to earth last time out in the Blue Grass, finishing sixth.
  • #8 South Bend (P0) is another last-minute entrant into the Derby and comes off a decent late-running fourth-place finish in the Travers in his first start in Hall-of-Famer Bill Mott’s barn. Before the Travers, he finished second in the Ohio Derby under the care of Stanley Hough, after running on turf for five straight starts, so maybe he’s coming back to his preferred surface.
  • #14 Winning Impression (P0) has finished seventh in his last 2 races (the Indiana Derby and the Ellis Park Derby), but his connections are hoping for another Dallas Stewart training miracle. Stewart got deep closers Golden Soul (in 2013) and Commanding Curve (2014) to finish second at long odds, so anything is possible!
  • The one-eyed wonder #1 Finnick the Fierce has been scratched.
Max Player working at Churchill Downs (Credit: Coady Photography)


Now that we’ve determined which horses will be where in the early going, the next step is to determine how fast they’ll go.

Any prediction is contingent upon either Authentic or Ny Traffic quickly distancing from the rest of the field, or hooking up in an early speed duel.

Historically, a fast pace from this type of field is not the case when we evaluate the “Brisnet Derby Field Speed” (BDFS) – a special calculation that I invented five years ago that averages the speed points of all E and E/P entries.

The table below shows the last 20 Derbies in order of the fastest first 3/4-mile times, lists the number of E8 (fastest early speed horses) in the race, and shows the BDFS:

Note that eight of the nine fastest-paced Derbies each had two or more E8 horses run, so a pace duel was more likely to ensue. The seven fastest paces averaged a BDFS of 6.36, while the seven slowest paces averaged a BDFS of 5.51.

This year’s Derby field has a BDFS of only 5.67, ranking it as the 16th-highest in the past 21 years. This indicates a slow to moderate pace, and with only one E8 entered, there’s reason to believe that the pace will fall somewhere in the lower part of the above chart.

Therefore, based on historical analysis, we can project that the first 1/2-mile should be run in approximately :47.00 and the first 3/4 of a mile in 1:11.25, which would make for the thirteenth-fastest Derby this millenium.

This pace should still be swift enough to make some of the early leaders tire, though, as Authentic will need to be hustled from the gate early from the outside 18 post to clear the field.  If Authentic tires late after setting a moderate pace, then this should allow the stalkers and mid-pack runners to get a jump on the closers late in the race.

A pace meltdown (where all of the leaders tire and the closers come charging home) would be unexpected. Too many good horses make up the second flight (including top choices Tiz the Law and Honor A. P.) to think that the closers are fast enough to pass them all in the lane.

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Additionally, recent Derby history has shown that the best horses to stalk the pace have been able to either win or hold on for a nice paycheck even with a fast pace. In 2016, Nyquist attended this milllenium’s sixth-fastest Derby pace and had plenty left in the tank to pull away for the win; Gun Runner was up front early before finishing third. Coincidently, the pace setter Danzing Candy set the pace coming out of the outside 20-post that year and faded badly.

In 2017, Always Dreaming won a fairly-paced Derby (comparable to what is expected this year) after sitting just off the early pace. Additionally, Battle of Midway attended the pace before finishing third in 2017.

Lookin At Lee’s runner-up finish in 2017 skews against this trend, though he had a dream inside trip to close from 17th at 33/1 odds. Closers can make a big run after a moderate pace with the right setup, so consider that when trying to identify horses who can hit the board on Saturday.

With the scratch of King Guillermo from this race, it is possible that this race ends up like a merry-go-round like the 2015 Derby, where American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund went around the track as the top three throughout. If that happens with a slow pace, we may see Authentic hold on for second or third with little to no late closing in the race.


So what does this all mean when handicapping the 2020 Kentucky Derby?

More than ever before, it is crucial to thoroughly examine this year’s pacesetters while handicapping the Derby. Any discussion of predicting how the race will unfold should start with Authentic and Ny Traffic.

A likely scenario is to project that Authentic and Ny Traffic will vie for the lead early and likely remain in front heading into the far turn, which is when Tiz the Law will launch his bid on the outside. At the same point, expect Authentic’s pedigree to cause him to fade.

Ny Traffic could continue chugging along as Honor A. P. launches his closing kick outside of him turning for home. With Tiz the Law taking over the lead by the 1/8 pole, he may prove too difficult for any of the stalkers and closers to track down.

Honor A. P. could be the only one able to get close to Tiz the Law late, if he launches the same move that propelled him to win the Santa Anita Derby:

Since there’s no fun in picking the biggest Derby favorite of the past 20 years, I’m going to predict that Honor A. P. will successfully make that big move on the turn and track down Tiz the Law in the lane.

My pick to win the 2020 Kentucky Derby is Honor A. P.!

I’ll use Honor A. P. and Tiz the Law equally on all multi-race and exotic wagers; I do not want to have Tiz the Law beat me.

To make some money in this race, I’ll bet against Authentic, since he’ll be the third choice in the betting and I’m already using the top two favorites in my wagers.

Projecting a slow to moderate pace that will benefit forwardly-placed horses, I predict that Thousand Words will keep grinding away and Ny Traffic can hold on for a piece, so those are my main two plays underneath Honor A. P. and Tiz the Law in exotic wagers.

Because closers can make a dent in the exotics even with a moderate pace, Max Player and Enforceable could possibly round out the trifecta and superfecta, as both will save ground from their inside posts throughout, so I’ll use them underneath on larger tickets only.

With a slower pace expected, Money Moves becomes an interesting longshot to use, as he’ll be forwardly placed and you may not want to leave a Pletcher with upside off your tickets at a huge price.

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All of my trifecta and superfecta ticket constructions and wagering advice can be found in the Racing Dudes’ Inside Track to the Kentucky Derby Wagering Guide, which will also have multi-race wagering advice and in-depth analysis of the entire Saturday card at Churchill Downs.

Follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim for more advice and updates. I’ll also be part of the Racing Dudes’ Derby Livestream, which you can watch on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Also, remember to place your online bets early. Even during a normal year with fans at the track, online wagering platforms slow down right before the Derby goes off.

Good luck wagering on the Kentucky Derby!

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