Is the Kentucky Derby pace looking softer than usual?

Is the Kentucky Derby pace looking softer than usual?
Photo: Churchill Downs

Right now, the list of true pacesetters for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 6 appears fairly thin. The term “true pacesetters” refers to runners who want to set the pace. Other Derby starters with tactical speed might gun for the lead if sent with an aggressive ride, but there are only a few who naturally set the pace. 

On the current Derby points list, Geaux Rocket Ride, Victory Formation and Hejazi stick out as three pacesetters. The latter two names would need a strong performance in their final prep to make the Derby, and Geaux Rocket Ride can probably get in by hitting the trifecta again in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

Geaux Rocket Ride did not set the pace in the San Felipe Stakes (G2) because the Tim Yakteen-trained Hejazi, who is a transfer from the Bob Baffert barn, outfooted him to the front heading into the first turn.

Will the same scenario occur if both colts make the Kentucky Derby?

To Geaux Rocket Ride’s credit, he relaxed in second without attempting to pull jockey Flavien Prat forward. Although this conservative strategy gave Hejazi an uncontested lead, Hejazi oddly went wide on the far turn as Practical Move moved inside, and then Hejazi started to fade.

As Hejazi faded, Geaux Rocket Ride shifted to the inside and held second over the closing Skinner as Practical Move opened up on both of them.

Geaux Rocket Ride owns more speed than shown in the San Felipe. In his career debut on Jan. 29, he set the pace in a six-furlong sprint before opening up in the stretch to dominate by an impressive 5 3/4 lengths. If Hejazi and Victory Formation do not make the Kentucky Derby, Geaux Rocket Ride likely will set the pace unless a faster international shipper enters.

Victory Formation does own a good amount of speed too, and if he makes the Run for the Roses, he can make Geaux Rocket Ride sweat.

In his most recent start, Victory Formation ended up chasing a fast pace in the Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds. The pace was set by Determinedly with pressure from another former Baffert-trained colt named Harlocap. Those runners went too fast and the pace melted down, as the closer Angel of Empire took advantage and won at 13-1 while the closing Sun Thunder grabbed second at 16-1.

Before the Risen Star, Victory Formation secured an uncontested lead in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn before winning by a clear three lengths. In his maiden win last October at Keeneland, Victory Formation also secured an uncontested lead early before opening up to win by 4 3/4 lengths.

If Hejazi fails to make the race, Victory Formation might end up either contesting the lead with Geaux Rocket Ride or setting the pace if that opponent lets him go, especially since he let Hejazi lead at Santa Anita.

Although Victory Formation faded in the Risen Star, he has more talent than shown in that race and can rebound with a strong performance.

Otherwise, Geaux Rocket Ride looks like the main American speed with the best chance to make the Kentucky Derby. At the moment, he has 20 points, and typically 30 points or higher is good enough for the top 20.

Even if Geaux Rocket Ride makes the race and Hejazi and Victory Formation come up short, the possibility of a international entrant or two showing dangerous speed remains. Last year, Japanese shippers Summer Is Tomorrow and Crown Pride set suicidal fractions before the pace collapsed.

This blog made the mistake last year of brushing off Summer Is Tomorrow’s blazing speed. The pace collapse led to the 80-1 Rich Strike winning. This year, researching the Japanese runners more closely will be a top priority before making the decisions on the pace scenario and final picks.

Assuming the international speed is not present, Geaux Rocket Ride might end up as an intriguing long shot to use, given the seemingly moderate Derby pace and the natural talent shown in his runner-up San Felipe effort.

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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