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2023 Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis | Predicting Race Flow To Pick The Winner
Brisnet projects Verifying to be the early leader of the 2023 Kentucky Derby, but how easy will he have it? (Coady Photography)

2023 Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis | Predicting Race Flow To Pick The Winner

There’s nothing like the Kentucky Derby. It is Americana built upon 149 years of tradition, mixing pageantry with the allure of a big score.

This ever-popular article is back to evaluate the best 3-year-old colts who, only 4 months into their sophomore campaigns, will try going a mile and 1/4 for the first time.

Juvenile champion #15 Forte (3/1 morning line) will attempt to become only the third Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) champion to win the Derby and the 1st since Nyquist in 2015-16. No matter who you like to win it all, the famed 20-horse field’s trip scenarios and the pace can always screw things up for even the likeliest of winners in Derby lore.

This year’s Pace Thesis goes as follows:

  1. Evaluating trends from the past 9 Derbies and how they influence the pace and outcome of this year’s Derby
  2. Breaking down the pace, the expected leaders, and how the field will fare against them
  3. Picking the winner and predicting who hits the board

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The Past 9 Derbies Set The Trend For 2023

Even if you don’t follow horse racing, you may have heard the saying, “Pace makes the race.” Pace, or how quickly a race goes early and how the race unfolds, is one of the four cornerstones of traditional horse racing handicapping to go along with Class, Speed, and Form.

The pace of the Kentucky Derby is a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. When 20 horses break from the gate, anything can happen and change the race’s complexion in an instant. It’s one of the most chaotic scenes in sports. Anyone who tells you that they know exactly what’s going to happen is a liar. A horse’s chances can be squashed two steps out of the gate. Just ask Lookin at Lucky, Thunder Snow, Known Agenda, Rock Your World, and many others before them.

The legendary Saratoga Slim, who wrote this Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis for 6 years (and won the Ron Rippey Media Handicapping Award in 2017) prior to retiring, was able to correctly predict how fast they ran early as well as the race shape. As he once wrote, “Simply labeling the Derby’s pace as hot, moderate, or slow is no longer a valid approach to fully evaluating this great puzzle.” Who am I to disagree?

As a result of what we’ve seen over the past 9 Derbies, a more quantitative approach is necessary. Gate-to-wire victories and fast-paced wins have largely dominated the Derby in the past decade, showing us that it doesn’t really matter how fast these horses go early. Then an historically fast edition in 2022 allowed 3 horses from way off the early pace to complete the trifecta, with Rich Strike coming out on top at a similarly historic price. But did that result blow this theory all to hell in a handbasket? Perhaps not.

Since the Derby points era began in 2013, only proper route runners qualify for the Derby, and that’s made all the difference. Pure 6-furlong sprinters are no longer qualifying for the Derby gate and grossly affecting the pace, but even that’s only half the story and, in retrospect, not even the heaviest effect of the points system’s implementation.

More importantly, the horses who now make the gate are all proven around two turns to at least an extent, often meaning that they’re more comfortable settling once they hit the Churchill Downs backside. After exerting energy and showing great speed to clear their 19 counterparts on the front side and into the first turn, the leaders and front-runners are able to “turn it off,” reserving the energy needed to pull away in the stretch.

Orb (in 2013) closed into the fastest-paced Derby at the 1/2- and 3/4-mile poles, with Orb benefitting from a run-off, first-time-blinkered Palace Malice (under jockey Mike Smith) on the front end. Rich Strike benefitted from the fastest opening 1/4-mile time in Derby history, thanks to Crown Pride (eventually 13th) and Summer Is Tomorrow (last of 20) going that distance in a blistering 21.78 seconds.

To show just how ridiculously fast that is for a 1 1/4-mile race, only the 14th and final race on that card – a 6-furlong dirt sprint – went faster early, with that race’s opening 1/4-mile going in 21.73 seconds, or 0.05 seconds quicker (the next-fastest opening times that day? 22.17 and 22.36 seconds, which were held at 6 1/2 and 7 furlongs on dirt). That’s the same as if the Boston Marathon was as fast as the Princess 5k at Disney World.

Since 2013, the Derby pace has been swift at times and moderate in other instances, but either way, the result has been the same:

Horses on or close to the lead have the best chance to win the Kentucky Derby:

  • California Chrome and American Pharoah sat off slow paces in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
  • In 2016, Nyquist sat in 2nd as the fifth-fastest (at the time) opening 1/2-mile pace in the past 21 years unfolded, then held on late over a fast-charging Exaggerator, with Gun Runner holding on for third after attending the pace throughout most of the race.
  • Always Dreaming caught a wet-fast track and sat off a moderate pace in 2017 before pouncing to win under jockey John Velazquez.
  • In 2018 and 2019, Justify and Maximum Security crossed the wire first by either attending or setting the pace. Along the way, they set the first- and fourth-fastest (at the time) opening 1/4-mile paces in the past 21 years.
  • To follow up Maximum Security’s gate-to-wire trip to finish first, Authentic (under Velazquez) used the same tactics in 2020, setting a fast early pace on a dry track en route to running the seventh-fastest Derby ever.
  • The next May, Medina Spirit (under Velazquez) crossed the wire first with a very similar front-running style and completed the race just 0.39 seconds slower than Authentic the year before.

So what does this all tell us? Figure out the projected leaders first and handicap from there. If the early pacesetters are of high quality, then these are the horses to focus on in the win slot. Let’s dive in!

2023 Derby Leaders & Pace Analysis

Among the tools available that lay out the pace of the race, the Brisnet Running Styles served Saratoga Slim well over the years, especially for plotting out the Derby. Who am I to counteract the expert?

The only horse with an Early running style is #2 Verifying (30/1), but he drew an unfavorable post inside of 18 horses. Complicating things further, 5 of the 6 horses most likely to contest the pace drew posts 4, 6, 7, 8, and 12. What does that mean? Even with a clean break, Verifying will need to be hard-ridden from the start just to avoid having multiple horses cross over in front of him prior to the first turn. Verifying nearly won the Blue Grass Stakes (G1) in gate-to-wire fashion last time out at Keeneland; his chances of repeating that effort in the Derby look (pardon the pun) slim.

Before continuing, I should explain what the different Brisnet Running Styles mean. And by explain, I mean copy exactly what’s written on the official Brisnet page:

  • E (Early) = A horse that exhibits this run style is one that typically vies for the early lead or whose best races are run on the lead. Most horses in this category do not successfully rate behind a pace setter.
  • E/P (Early/Presser) = A horse that exhibits this run style is one that runs second or third within a few lengths of the lead early before trying to run down the leader. An “E/P” horse, just like an “E” horse, may run on the front end but, unlike an “E” horse, it can be expected to successfully rate behind a pace setter.
  • P (Presser) = A horse that exhibits this run style is one that runs in the middle-of-the-pack early before trying to run down the leader. A “P” horse may at times run close to the lead but rarely, if ever, challenges for the lead early. Unlike an “S” horse, the “P” horse doesn’t typically run from the rear of the pack in its better races.
  • S (Sustain or Closer) = A horse that exhibits this run style is one that runs in the back of the pack early before trying to run down the leader.

Based on post positions and Brisnet Running Styles, the most likely front-runners for the Kentucky Derby are:

  • #2 Verifying (E 7)
  • #4 Confidence Game (E/P 5)
  • #6 Kingsbarns (E/P 5)
  • #7 Reincarnate (E/P 5)
  • #8 Mage (E/P 5)
  • #12 Jace’s Road (E/P 5)
  • #21 Cyclone Mischief (E/P 4)

The presence of 6 horses with E/P ratings in the field (plus #17 Derma Sotogake – more on him later), especially with 4 of them drawn within 6 posts of Verifying, tells me that the pace should be moderately fast. Horses coming from the middle of the field should have a fair chance to win if they’re good enough and the closers at the rear should have enough tired horses to weave around late and at least grab a piece of the money.

#4 Confidence Game (20/1) earned 2 of his 3 wins over the Churchill Downs course, both times doing so in gate-to-wire fashion over fast tracks. However, his Rebel Stakes (G2) victory saw him 6 1/2 lengths back after the opening 1/4-mile and and 4 1/4 lengths back through a 1/2-mile. How much the sloppy Oaklawn Park surface affected his break is unknown, whereas a fast track should help propel him toward the front. Though he skipped recording an official workout in mid-April, he worked 5 furlongs at Churchill Downs in a bullet best-of-59 time of :59.00 and has reportedly flourished since returning to the Twin Spires.

#6 Kingsbarns (12/1) can show speed, as he did in his Louisiana Derby (G2) gate-to-wire victory, but he successfully stalked or pressed the pace in his previous 2 wins. While the Todd Pletcher trainee has caught slack for how slowly the race was run early, the 109 Brisnet Late Pace rating that he received for the Louisiana Derby is the second-highest such figure given to any horse in the Derby throughout their careers (the highest came from a horse I mention later). Kingsbarns has proven as well as any horse in the crop that he can “turn it off” on the backstretch and conserve energy for the grueling drive to the wire.

#7 Reincarnate (50/1) nearly broke his maiden on debut when attempting to wire a turf field before finishing second by a neck, and both his eventual maiden victory and his next-out Sham Stakes (G3) score both occurred with front-running tactics. He didn’t break well in the Rebel and spotted the field 11 lengths early before rallying to finish third, then tracked within 1-2 lengths of the early Arkansas Derby leaders but couldn’t sustain his stretch run, finishing third by 4 3/4 lengths.

#8 Mage (15/1) won his debut at Gulfstream Park in gate-to-wire fashion, but extremely poor breaks in both the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby cost him any chance of being part of the early pace. Trainer Gustavo Delgado wanted a Hall of Fame jockey for the Derby because of the horse’s inexperience (just 3 career starts) and Javier Castellano – aboard in the Fountain of Youth – answered the call. Breaking cleanly matters for every Derby runner, but especially so for a horse like Mage who does his best running when forwardly placed.

#12 Jace’s Road (15/1) won the Gun Runner Stakes by leading at every point of call, but his (and/or his jockey’s) reluctance to take early command of the Louisiana Derby (despite jockey Flavien Prat on Kingsbarns expecting him to do so) doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that he’ll reverse tactics while drawn outside most of the speed in a much more competitive field.

#18 Rocket Can (30/1) is listed as an Early / Presser, but he was at least 2 lengths behind the leader through the opening 1/4-mile of every start except the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2), when he was 1 1/2 lengths behind before eventually finishing second. The Bill Mott trainee will want to show early foot to get good position, but his race in the Arkansas Derby (G1) was just too bad to believe to strongly back him here. Horses coming into the Derby off of bad starts often don’t suddenly run well again, so if he wins, then it’ll be without any of my money on him. It’s worth mentioning that Mott added blinkers for Rocket Can’s last 2 workouts before the Derby and he’ll wear them in a race for the first time on May 6.

#21 Cyclone Mischief (30/1) made the Derby gate after Practical Move (originally my top pick) was scratched on May 4. Breaking from the far outside post – nowhere near any of the expected speed – theoretically increases his chances of playing into the early pace scenario. His first 3 career starts (all at distances of at least 1 mile) saw him pressing just off the shoulder or hip of the early leader, but his attempt to wire the Fountain of Youth backfired when he couldn’t sustain his effort in the stretch before finishing third, 5 3/4 lengths behind.

It’s worth noting that Brisnet doesn’t assign Running Styles to horses with only international experience. While #17 Derma Sotogake (10/1) won the UAE Derby (G2) gate to wire, he was noticeably off the pace in mid-pack through both of his 2 previous starts: third in the Saudi Derby (G3) and first in Japan’s Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun Stakes. Others might disagree based on his UAE Derby effort, but I’m treating him as an Early / Presser who will most likely run closer to the front, a running style that’s very different than what he showed in the UAE Derby, the race that has many people excited to bet him.

Other Top Horses’ Brisnet Running Styles

The morning line second choice #5 Tapit Trice (5/1) can attribute much of his success to jockey Luis Saez making all of the right moves. While he was 8 lengths back early in the Blue Grass, he was only 1 length back after 3/4 of a mile because Saez pushed the Pletcher trainee forward along the backstretch. A similar trip occurred 2 races prior to the Blue Grass, when Saez put Tapit Trice on the lead against allowance horses at Gulfstream Park. While Tapit Trice seems to have one of the strongest late kicks in the field, his lack of early positioning and his having drawn in the middle of the cluster of speed horses could mean an ultra-rough trip early that ultimately costs him the win.

Forte’s jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. has been aboard for all 7 starts thus far, but in each of his 4 route races (all wins), this Pletcher trainee has never been closer than 2-3 lengths within range of the leaders through the opening 3/4 of a mile. While the Kentucky Derby will be a longer distance than he or any of his rivals have attempted so far, this same running style against 19 others puts him at a higher risk of experiencing traffic trouble when making his move. Good thing he has 4-time Eclipse Award-winning rider in his corner.

And then there’s #14 Angel of Empire (8/1). In each of his first 2 wins (both at 1 mile over the Horseshoe Indianapolis dirt), he was 1 1/2 lengths behind the leader after 75% of the race was over, but in his Kentucky Derby trail victories (the Arkansas Derby and the Risen Star Stakes [G2]), he made up 3 1/4 and 4 3/4 lengths, respectively, after 3/4 of a mile had been run. His jockey, Flavien Prat, won the 2019 Derby aboard Country House via disqualification. That day, Country House was 4 1/4 lengths behind original winner Maximum Security after 3/4 of a mile, but Prat positioned Country House to be just a head behind with 1/4 of a mile left to run. Like Forte, his running style puts him in danger of being stopped or slowed by slowing traffic, but both horses have the benefit of breaking from the outer half of the field with world-class jockeys aboard.

Late Pace Makes This Race

Brisnet’s Late Pace (LP) figure is a pace rating that measures how fast the horse ran from the second call of the race to the finish. This is often a strong indicator of stamina and the horse’s desire to complete the treacherous 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby distance. Why is this important? Here are the highest Late Pace ratings for every horse that crossed the Derby wire first since 2010, taken from 1 of the horse’s last 2 pre-Derby starts:

  • Rich Strike: 107
  • Medina Spirit: 88
  • Authentic: 98
  • Maximum Security: 123 (the winner via DQ, Country House: 103)
  • Justify: 117
  • Always Dreaming: 99
  • Nyquist: 103
  • American Pharoah: 109
  • California Chrome: 97
  • Orb: 103
  • I’ll Have Another: 109
  • Animal Kingdom: 101

Notice a trend? Outside of Medina Spirit’s figure, every Kentucky Derby winner dating back to 2010 – 12 of the last 13 runnings – earned a Brisnet Late Pace rating of at least 97. Additionally, 8 of the last 13 winners hit triple digits. Due to the early pace not looking strong this year, I’m going to focus on playing my win bet on a horse who falls into the triple-digit category.

Two Pressers worth mentioning are #3 Two Phil’s (12/1) and #11 Disarm (30/1). Despite his name carrying a grossly unnecessary apostrophe, Two Phil’s earned the highest Brisnet Speed Rating (107) of this entire crop when winning the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3). His earned Late Pace of 106 is nothing to sneeze at, either. While that race came on Turfway Park’s synthetic course (the same one that produced Rich Strike), he was competitive in 2 Derby trail starts earlier this year and won last fall’s Street Sense Stakes (G3) at Churchill Downs in the slop. Also, if you’re looking for a feel-good story to root for in this year’s Derby, Joe Nevills of the Paulick Report wrote an excellent profile on my fellow Michigan native Jareth Loveberry, jockey for Two Phil’s:

As for Disarm, he’s been compared favorably to his sire, Gun Runner, who finished 3rd in the 2016 Kentucky Derby before later becoming the world’s top older dirt horse. He missed 6 months of races but has hit the board in all 3 starts this year, and his Louisiana Derby runner-up effort produced a field-best 110 Brisnet Late Pace rating for his runner-up effort. It’s worth noting that Disarm was the only horse in the entire field to make up ground on a runaway winner in Kingsbarns, not an easy feat.

2023 Derby Picks

Saratoga Slim invented a value named the Brisnet Derby Field Speed in previous renditions of this Pace Thesis. The 2023 Derby field has a very low value with only one E 7 horse entered, so the Derby should have a slower pace. This will greatly benefit the horses in the front pack and set me up for my picks.

The expected leader, Verifying, has finished first or second in 4 of his 6 career starts. His 2 off-the-board efforts can be at least partially attributed to a poor start in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile or a sloppy track in the Rebel. In both races, he was at least 4 lengths behind the leader at the opening 1/4-mile marker, but in his 4 exacta finishes, he was never greater than 2 lengths back at that same point. However, with his inner post position and the presence of so much expected speed to his immediate outside, I’m going to let him beat me anywhere on my exotics tickets. He’s a toss.

Due to a combination of their running styles and the projected pace, the top three morning line choices – Forte, Tapit Trice, and Angel of Empire – will all need to work out perfect trips while weaving through or around traffic. Unlike with Justify, Always Dreaming, and Nyquist, who all held pace advantages, it’s risky playing a short win price on any 2023 Derby horse who lacks a sufficient early turn of foot. This is where having an elite rider and getting a lucky post draw can make or break a horse’s chances.

And as far as Derma Sotogake goes, his jockey Christophe Lemaire was half of the reason for the record-fast Derby pace last year. I know he’s been arguably the best jockey in Japan since 2017, but I’m not convinced that he learned from his superbly atrocious mistake aboard Crown Pride in 2022. On top of that, both Japanese horses in the gate – Derma Sotogake and Continuar – have reportedly struggled with their increased public attention since arriving to Churchill Downs. What will happen when the gates burst open and the 147,000 people in attendance roar loudly enough to be heard 3 towns over? We saw it happen in 2017 with UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow:

I wrote earlier about jockey John Velazquez’s 3 Derby wins in 2017, 2020, and 2021, and how they all came on or near the front end. While I don’t think Reincarnate (the opposite of a short win price at 50/1) is good enough to pull off a Rich Strike-type shocker, Velazquez’s Derby-winning style fits this horse to a T and the horse’s former trainer Bob Baffert believed that this horse has the stamina to run all day long. While most of his rivals will be sucking wind by the 3/16 pole, Reincarnate would not surprise me at all if he was still chugging along late.

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Magic, just give us your darn pick already!” (hey, it’s about the journey, not the destination, right?) Based on the projected pace scenario, his running style, and his consistently strong Brisnet Speed Ratings and Late Pace figures, I am picking Angel of Empire to win the 2023 Kentucky Derby.

For my exotics bets, I’ll use a mix of horses underneath who I believe have the right combination of running style, stamina, and expert jockey to give them the best chances of success. My underneath exacta horses are Kingsbarns, Reincarnate, and Tapit Trice. I think Kingsbarns and Reincarnate will be in the right position at the top of the stretch, but I worry that they’ll be able to hold off Angel of Empire late. And as much as I love jockey Luis Saez, I’m worried that even he isn’t enough of a wizard to magically overcome Tapit Trice’s post and work out a clean enough trip to win.

For the trifecta, I’ll add in more long shots I like in Confidence Game and Disarm. Confidence Game has show an affinity for the track and Disarm’s field-best Brisnet Late Pace rating tells me that his endurance will propel him past tiring horses in the stretch. As for Forte, I have believed since the Fountain of Youth that the Juvenile champion peaked at the end of his 2-year-old campaign. Also, my high hopes for Two Phil’s took a beating with that poor inside draw that I’m afraid may push him back farther than he’s able to overcome late. They’ll fill out my superfecta slot.

So there you have it! Thanks for reading. Whether or not you play the same horses that I like, hopefully I did Saratoga Slim proud and helped you come to a confident decision for betting on “The most exciting 2 minutes in sports.” Good luck to you all in the Derby!