The best horse doesn’t necessarily win the Kentucky Derby. Sometimes the best horse is trounced, because the outcome of the race can be dramatically affected by the early pace. Even though California Chrome is the most accomplished horse in 140th Derby, his chances may hinge on the way the first half mile of the race is run.
All horseplayers know the axioms of pace handicapping: When a horse takes the early lead without much pressure, setting a slow pace, he will have strength in reserve to fend off the challenges of stretch runners. Conversely, when the early leaders battle each other and run too fast, they are apt to weaken and set the stage for stretch runners.
These truths apply at every level of the sport, but they are especially important in the Derby. With its now-customary 20-horse fields, more front-running types are apt to be in the Derby than in a normal race. Because of the oversize fields, jockeys may have to hustle their horses early to secure a decent tactical position.
Last year, Palace Malice sped to the lead at Churchill Downs, running his first half mile in a 45.33 seconds, one of the fastest fractions in Derby history. Not only did Palace Malice weaken badly, so did every horse who was close to him in the early running. Orb rallied from 17th place to win; Golden Soul came from 15th place to be second.
Neither of the top two finishers won a single race after the Derby. But Palace Malice went on to capture the Belmont Stakes and establish himself as one of the top colts of his generation. Oxbow, who was chasing Palace Malice before finishing sixth, came back to win the Preakness. It’s fair to say that the outcome of the Derby was determined more by pace than the relative talent of the horses.
This is regularly true in the Derby when the first half mile is run faster than 46 seconds. Since 1986, the first half mile has been run in 45.99 seconds or faster eight times. In each of those years, stretch-runners have prevailed, most of them coming from far, far behind. In 2005, when the half-mile fraction was 45.38, the horses running 18-6-11-19-10 after a half mile wound up finishing 1-2-3-4-5, with the 50-1 Giacomo on top. In only one of those eight fast-paced races did a horse in the top three after a half mile finish in the money. That was Bodemeister, who finished second after setting the pace in 2012.California Chrome won important stakes in his last two starts after dueling for the lead. If he is on or near the lead Saturday, viewers should take note of the time for the fist half mile. If it is faster than 46 seconds, history says the favorite is in trouble.