The Brock Talk

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Kentucky Derby: Pace, Traffic and Faith

One of oldest and most sound handicapping principles in thoroughbred racing is "pace makes the race." The study of handicapping under this theory dictates that each horse in a given race be classified as a front runner, a stalker or a closer. (Different systems have different terms, but the definitions are fairly consistent). After which the potential prognosticator attempts to map out the race at different stages relative to the competitors positions and energy used and determine which has the best chance to win.If there are too many front runners, the thinking goes, they will fight each other for the lead and run too fast, too early, tire and eventually surrender the lead to the stalkers and closers. A lone speed horse, on the other hand, may dictate a slow pace and have plenty to withstand the late challengers.

Without question, the first scenario appears very likely in the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands. Among the 20 most likely Derby starters as of Tuesday, no less than seven of them are legitimate speed horses including Sidney's Candy (photo), the Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) winner and the probable second choice in the betting behind only Lookin at Lucky.

With that many horses going for the lead, the pace of this year's Kentucky Derby figures to be very rapid and will theoretically compromise the chances of the front running horses. Of the seven speed horses in the Derby, Line of David, Conveyance and Sidney's Candy are the most apt at winning from the front end and are likely to try to set the pace in the Derby.

The jockeys on these speed horses will be riding much more aggressively out of the gate and during the first quarter-mile run past the grandstand for the first time and looking for the few front row spots around the famous clubhouse turn.

Each year hundreds of photos are taken of the horses running around the first turn in the Kentucky Derby with the twin spires in the backround. Television producers also make a point of taking annual signature shot of the stampede around the first. For the jockeys aboard the front runners - it is their first job in the race to make that shot. You don't have to be the first one in the picture, but the cameras better see you. The race is most like over for any front runner lost back in the pack that early.

Eleven of the Derby contenders appear to be stalkers and will most likely be making up the middle of the pack as the field begins their run down the Churchill Downs backstretch.

Note: After saying Monday that Interactif was unlikely for the Derby, trainer Todd Pletcher said a final decision will be made Wednesday. That would eliminate Backtalk should Interactif enter.

Of this group, Paddy O'Prado, Jackson Bend and Homeboykris are the most likely to be nearest the leaders as they have raced very near the front runners in their recent races and are thus most vulnerable to also getting caught in a fast pace early. While the other stalkers appear to be more flexible in how they can be placed by their jockey during the race. Notable horses such as Lookin at Lucky, Devil May Care, Mission Impazible, Awesome Act and Noble's Promise should fall into the second tier of stalkers.

The stalkers will be looking to have a clean break from the gate and an uneventful first run past the grandstand and into the clubhouse turn. The objective of the jockeys aboard these stalkers will be to avoid as much of the inevitable traffic jam caused when the 20 horses begin to negotiate positions in the first 400 yards. Going into the first turn, those plans can collide and horses can bump, check, jostle and even stumble. The stalkers are most likely to get the brunt of that traffic and can also lose all chance of victory at this point as well.

Down the backstretch, relaxation and rhythm will be everyone's goal. Jockeys will be hoping for a ride with still hands, long reins and a straight back that will hold a martini glass and not spill a drop.

Near the red and white pole near the far turn a half-mile from the finish, the jockeys hands will begin to move as front runners begin to tire and stalkers and closers begin to rally. Turn number two also provides the second bevy of traffic obstacles, but this time it will be more vertical as the jockeys on any potential winners begin to steer around and through the stopping pretenders.

As three-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert says, "At the top of the stretch, you just want your horse to have a chance to win. If they're backing up at that point, it's just not very fun."

The Churchill Downs stretch is one of the longest in North America at 1,097 feet from the far turn to the finish line - just 223 feet short a quarter-mile. So closer and late stalkers have plenty of ground closers to run down any front runners.

How that turns out Saturday, nobody yet knows. But it is sure to be another fitting conclusion to the most exciting two minutes in sports.

Tuesday Work Recap from Mike Welsh Daily Racing Form

More Derby Fun Facts
102 of the 135 previous winners of the Kentucky Derby 102 were foaled in Kentucky. Florida is next with six winners followed by Virginia (4), California (3) and Tennessee (3)... Citation (1948) (coupled with Coaltown) and Count Fleet (1943) each paid $2.80. These were the smallest winning prices recorded since pari-mutuel betting on the Derby was introduced in 1908...


John said...

Great article, Brock. I really enjoyed this very much. Not much I can say that you haven't already said, and I learned quite a bit today.

I'm still trying to pick whom I like and it isn't easy. I do think Lookin At Lucky is the best of this group however, but in this race, it will probably take more than just being the best horse.

Brock Sheridan said...

I'm also wavering but leaning toward Awesome Act. Lucky appears to be the best, but I just have a difficult time even touting a favorite.

ReneC said...

Should they make the Derby field smaller than 20 if they have all of this conjestion and traffic?