What will it take for a Kentucky Derby pace meltdown?

What will it take for a Kentucky Derby pace meltdown?
Photo: Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire

For a pace collapse to occur in this year’s Kentucky Derby, it would take a few brave jockeys to not worry about a speed duel and let their horse loose. As it stands right now, the only horse who absolutely needs the lead is Caddo River, who improved to a mild second after setting the pace in the Arkansas Derby (G1).

Beyond Caddo River, speed horses such as Rock Your World, Medina Spirit, Midnight Bourbon, Highly Motivated and Soup and Sandwich are not true pacesetters in the sense of needing the lead in order to fire. All five of those horses show pressing or stalking running lines in their past performances.

According to TimeformUS Pace Projector, Rock Your World is projected to lead based on his past pace figures, with Medina Spirit a close third behind Rock Your World and Caddo River. But again, Rock Your World and Medina Spirit do not absolutely need the lead, although trainer Bob Baffert is likely to want Medina Spirit sitting close and Rock Your World is naturally fast.

If a suicidal pace between the top three speed horses does not materialize, then the other speed horses need to step up and go outside their comfort zone. Unfortunately, the pace figures found in the lines of Midnight Bourbon, Highly Motivated, Soup and Sandwich or even Hot Rod Charlie (who Pace Projector places in mid-pack) look mild compared to Caddo River, Rock Your World and Medina Spirit.

It is possible one of those horses pops out of the gate and becomes uncontrollable, possibly because of the crowd. For most of the year, these horses ran in front of small crowds because of COVID. Now, there will be a relatively large audience at Churchill Downs with the pandemic slowing down.  

In 2013, Palace Malice went wild in the opening half, perhaps because of the crowd or the addition of blinkers, setting up the race for a pace collapse.

Watch Palace Malice separate on the first turn.

By the time 45.33 posted as the half-mile fraction, most Palace Malice bettors likely gave up. Notice how spread out the field appears.

No other horse went with Palace Malice when he began to open up, but his tactics likely made the front half speed up as a whole in order not to fall behind.

Is there another Palace Malice in this Kentucky Derby? As of this writing, none of the speed horses without blinkers are adding them. However, an inexperienced and green runner such as Soup and Sandwich might draw a wide post near the grandstand, draw on the crowd’s energy and decide he wants to set a 45.33 half.

In most cases, jockey plays tug of war with those kinds of eager horses and fight them heading into the first turn. Other jockeys, such as Mike Smith, might reason that it is better to let a rank horse run freely rather than struggle with him and waste energy. Smith was the pilot aboard Palace Malice in his ill-fated 2013 Kentucky Derby run.

Of course, there are some instances where one or two of the speed horses are too talented to fold into the pack, such as in the 2018 edition.

Despite pressing the sprinter Promises Fulfilled through an opening 22.24 and 45.77, Justify just kept on running in an incredible performance.

Good Magic also put in a great effort for second after stalking closely.

In fairness, closers such as Audible and Instilled Regard went through traffic problems on the second turn. Yet, the race shows talented speed horses can overcome an extreme pace. When it comes to horse racing, there are rarely trends or rules without exceptions.

Overall, the best chance for a pace collapse this year is if Caddo River, Rock Your World and Medina Spirit “throw it down” in the opening half-mile without any concern over the fractions. If that happens, it will set up the race for the favored Essential Quality – or a long shot if Essential Quality gets stuck in traffic or misfires.

More likely than not, these jockeys will realize the consequences of a suicidal pace and find a way to keep it reasonable. As stated in an earlier post, recent history shows the modern Kentucky Derby favors speed or tactical speed. Others could argue that the Kentucky Derby is due for another Orb-style deep closer to win, as it has not happened since 2013.

Watch how the field appears as a whole by the half-mile. If the 20 horses appear tightly packed with no gaps between different pace groups, then a collapse is unlikely.

In contrast, if one of the horses goes to the front in Palace Malice style and helps spread out the field, then watch out.

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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