Derby Pace – My Brain Hurts

triple crown

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This year’s Derby pace scenario is making my brain hurt so much, I’m having a hard time handicapping the race and constructing my approach. I thought it was writer’s block, but it’s actually pace scenario block.

This is the most indecipherable pace scenario I’ve ever seen in my 25 year Derby history. Why? Everything is screwed up:

The potential front runner, Maximum Security, isn’t actually that fast early. Many closers, including established late runners like Game Winner and Code of Honor, have run faster than this guy to the first call in sprint races earlier in their career (at least according to BRIS pace figures).

The two fastest horses early – in my estimation that’s Vekoma and Spinoff – don’t want the lead. Here’s how George Weaver described Vekoma on the In The Money Podcast’s monster Derby show this week: “He’s got tactical speed as good as anybody in the race. The good thing about the horse is that he’ll turn off. You can ask him for it and he’ll turn off. He’s not going to get on the bridle and extend himself.”

I think you could apply Weaver’s comments to a wide variety of horses in the race, including Omaha Beach, Vekoma, Maximum Secuirty, War of Will, Game Winner, Tax, Grey Magician and Spinoff. The first run down the stretch is going to look like an awkward moment between several co-workers getting on an elevator where each one is looking to be chivalrous:

“Go ahead.”

“No, please, after you.”

“No, I insist, you go ahead.”

And here’s the big question – will one of them step up and say “Screw it! You guys stay back, I’m getting on the elevator” like I did last this Tuesday to a stunned group of marketing executives.

Or, will there be that really awkward moment where we ALL decided to take the initiative and run into each other trying to get on the elevator at the same time?

Determining which of those elevator scenarios will play out is the key to determining who will win the Derby. To pick the winner in the first “Screw it, I’m going” scenario, you have to look at connections, as there are no clear “fastest horses.” I think that Spinoff is my selection here, as he has a trainer who knows when to be opportunistic and has actually won the Derby twice with inferior horses ridden aggressively – Super Saver and Always Dreaming. Additionally, he has the services of an astute and opportunistic rider, Manny Franco.

If it’s the second scenario and the pace gets hot, with Maximum Secuirty, Spinoff and a few others burning through fast fractions, then it becomes a presser and closer crapshoot. Game Winner and Tacitus seem most well equipped with experience running down fast paces and closing strong to get the win.

The uncertainty around the pace scenario may lead horseplayers to build exotics tickets around multiple scenarios. For example:

  • Spinoff controls the pace and wires them: Play tris with Spinoff on top, other speed horses and pressers in 2nd and 3rd and minimal use of closers.
  • Closers run down a fast pace: Play tris with a number of different closers in the first and second spots, and leave out horses like Spinoff, Maximum Security, and Omaha Beach who would theoretically get burned up through 45 and change fractions.

These tickets couldn’t be done with one tri/super play. They would actually have to be played separately, because they will be so profoundly different with completely different runners in the top 2 spots, with maybe some crossover in 3rd and 4th.

As post-position draw takes place and the track profile becomes clearer, I may end up leaning one way or the other. And while I have some clarity around what could happen, I remain as confused as ever about what will happen next Saturday regarding the pace and the outcome of the Kentucky Derby.


  1. Ty on April 28, 2019 at 4:12 am

    Great article. Like the elevator analogies. Glad I’m not the only one.. My brain is in the same predicament. Leaning towards the first one playing out and basing my wagers (80%) around the speed/pressers.

  2. Chris on April 28, 2019 at 2:45 pm

    Great article, I think there will be a controlled pace, but no one wires this race..

  3. Greg on April 28, 2019 at 4:45 pm

    War of will and grey magician will be your early leaders. Pace will be moderate to fast.

  4. Monte Brown on April 28, 2019 at 4:48 pm

    This is one of the most difficult Derby’s to handicap in years. Even when I was wrong, and there were plenty of those, I had a strong conviction concerning the chances of one or two horses. This year I’m not falling in love with anyone. Perhaps post and track conditions will help.

  5. MAR.T on April 29, 2019 at 1:44 am

    I think if any two of , Omaha Beach,Roadster,Maximum Security,Improbable,Game Winner,Vekoma draw outside between 14-20, they would have no choice but to leave hard for position among others.You only get one chance to win this Derby.I don’t think the jocks of these horses want to be sitting 18th at the half mile pole or something.I think it’s very likely to be a fast pace early.

    • Greg on April 29, 2019 at 2:40 pm

      I agree 100%. These horses especially from this positions will be trying to get good position for sure. The track will be playing fair since all that stuff went on at Santa Anita. This should set up nice for mid pack runners and closers.

      • Mar.T on April 30, 2019 at 12:22 am

        There have been some quicker than normal works by some derby horses. I’ve heard more than one analyst say that the surface is very fast and “bouncy”.With a dry forecast predicted,I think they’ll be flying into that first turn.One or two of the “likely” contenders are gonna get cooked early.

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