Analysis: Who will set the 2019 Kentucky Derby pace?

April 18, 2019 07:02pm
Heading into the 2019 Kentucky Derby, it appears unclear as to which contender will set the pace in a crowded 20-horse field.

A number of handicappers will avoid picking that horse to win because he's likely to face loaded pressure early. Leading gate to wire is not impossible, but it hasn't happened since 2002 with War Emblem.

Helping put this puzzle together is the TimeformUS Pace Projector now available. Of course, post positions can ultimately affect the race strategy and pace too, but this early look gets us started.

Somewhat surprisingly, the graphic shows Vekoma on the lead. But it only takes browsing through his past performances to figure out why that scenario is unlikely.

In two recent route starts, Vekoma never set the pace. He came close in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) when he pressed Somelikeithotbrown. But while he chased a fast pace in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) he failed to keep up and started seven lengths off.

Because the Derby pace is normally fast, the Fountain of Youth is a better example to use. But even if he is closer than seven lengths, the point is that Vekoma does not want the lead. From all of his races, it looks like this odd-striding horse prefers a target.

Next to Vekoma on the Pace Projector is Omaha Beach. The expected Derby favorite certainly is a candidate to take the lead within the opening half mile.

But it is fair to question whether he will actually start off with the outright lead. Even when Mike Smith took over as Omaha Beach’s rider and used more aggressive tactics for in Rebel Stakes (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1) wins, he initially started third and fifth. 

Only after the first turn in the Rebel did Smith let Omaha Beach roll outside.

Omaha Beach does not break directly on the lead, which means another horse is more probable to take up the role that Market King did in the second division Rebel.

Behind Vekoma and Omaha Beach on the Pace Projector graphic are Spinoff, Roadster and Gray Magician. None of those horses want to set the pace, either.

In Spinoff’s two races this year, including the Louisiana Derby (G2), he started one or two lengths off the lead. Therefore, his position in the Pace Projector is accurate.

Roadster started the Santa Anita Derby (G1) in fifth place, although he never fell more than four lengths off the pace. He does not run like he wants the lead. Two starts back in an optional claimer, he only pressed Diamond Blitz because of a slow pace. 

As for Gray Magician, he stalked the pace in the Sham Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita back in January before setting the pace in an optional claimer later in the month. In all likelihood, Joel Rosario was trying to take advantage of a speed bias on a sloppy track.

Gray Magician shipped to Dubai and ran from behind as a closer in the tightly packed UAE Derby (G2) field at Meydan. He ran well considering the wide trip, but the point is, his tactics in the Derby are unlikely to involve contesting the pace.

The next three speed horses on Derby Pace Projector are War of Will, Tax and Maximum Security. I believe there's an answer within this group.

War of Will enjoys pressing the pace, as seen in his Lecomte Stakes (G3) and Risen Star Stakes (G2) performances. Toss out the troubled Louisiana Derby (G2) effort. If he plays aggressive, War of Will might attempt to match Omaha Beach and make an early move. But as with Vekoma, he probably prefers a target up front in the opening quarter.

Tax is another horse who prefers to sit one or two lengths off the leader in a normally paced race. When the pace gets hot, then he is farther off, as seen in the Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) when he fell seventh lengths behind the early speed duel.

By default, Maximum Security looks like the early pacesetter.

It's easy to point to the Florida Derby (G1) pace and how Maximum Security took advantage. That is true. He benefited greatly when Hidden Scroll rated.

But Maximum Security is used to the lead, as he set the pace in three out of four lifetime starts, including the seven-furlong Gulfstream sprint seen below.

Most horses with enough speed to set the pace in a sprint will also do so, or at least come close, in a 1 1/4-mile race. Because the race lacks a true sprinter such as Promises Fulfilled seen last year, Maximum Security looks like the one.

Will Maximum Security need to run significantly faster than he did in the opening quarter of the Florida Derby? Of course. He'll have to work harder in a 20-horse field to lead.

Maximum Security will also take a difficult early challenge from Omaha Beach, whose aim is to discourage the leader and take command by the far turn.

But the point here is not to choose the winner; rather, but it's to examine  the TimeformUS Pace Projector and predict the actual pacesetter. Some readers might wonder why it is even useful to glance at the Pace Projector. 

It is always useful to see other pace opinions, whether it comes from another handicapper or a computer algorithm.

As stated in the previous post, the slow Florida Derby pace does not disqualify Maximum Security from handling a hot pace. It only means he faced a soft pace scenario.   

According to common pace handicapping practices though, it is preferable to bet horses who already proved themselves capable of handling hot fractions. Without that proven quality in his belt, Maximum Security comes off as a slight mystery horse. 


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Meet Reinier Macatangay

My first time at the racetrack came as a 5-year-old kid at Santa Anita Park. For most of my younger life, that was the only track I attended other the occasional visit to Hollywood Park. 

Years later, after graduating California State University, Stanislaus with an English MA, I began writing for Lady and the Track. From late 2014-2016, my articles were seen on a weekly basis and covered handicapping, interviews with well-known racing personalities, fashion and more. 

The handicapping style I use concentrates on pace analysis. Some horses are compromised by the pace. Others are helped. Handicappers just starting out cannot easily see how pace affects the finish, so with this blog, I hope to help those unsure of how to apply pace into their handicapping and post-race analysis. 

On an unrelated note, I enjoy video games and attending anime or comic-book conventions. I am currently based in Kentucky, but spend a lot of time traveling between there and California.

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