Before we start diving into the Kentucky Derby pacefest, let’s first catch up on the last two major preps.
Line of David might be a 30-to-1 shot when the field leaves the gate for the Derby, but judging from his Arkansas Derby performance, he should have a strong impact on how the race is run.
Most thought Super Saver would set the pace, but he broke a touch awkwardly and Line of David blasted off decisively to control the early running in a pacefig line of 78-85-92-93-92F. Line of David, Super Saver, Dublin and Noble’s Promise were all weakening noticeably toward the end; the fractions were only slightly stronger than average recent runnings of the race, but the Arkansas Derby tends to have a larger field and more aggressive pace than many preps. From 2004’s Smarty Jones to the present, the Arkansas Derby pacefig line has averaged 77-83-90-93-94F.
In a Kentucky Derby that appears loaded with early foot, these horses obviously don’t factor as strongly as, say, Curlin, Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones did in other recent runnings. Dublin once again seemed best in hindsight given ground loss, but he had similar excuses in the Southwest and Rebel, and hung late in the Arkansas Derby when the race seemed ripe for the taking. Noble’s Promise had a legitimate excuse; he was taken out of his usual game when shuffled back to last in the opening strides, but his lackluster final furlong certainly didn’t alleviate concerns about his distance pedigree.
The likely early leaders at Churchill Downs are easy to decipher. Line of David’s four- and six-furlong pace figures were 85-92. In the Florida Derby, Rule’s were 86-91, and Conveyance went in 87-92 in the one-mile Southwest Stakes. Who knows what to make of Sidney’s Candy? Then throw in American Lion and possibly others such as Super Saver and Discreetly Mine and whatever tactical-speed type draws an inside post position, and we have the makings of a Derby pace meltdown to rival 2001 (Monarchos) and 2005 (Giacomo).
Recently, the Arkansas Derby has been straightforward, yielding few surprises at Churchill Downs. Papa Clem and Gayego were longshots and ran like it. The inexperienced Curlin was well-supported, but his Oaklawn pacefig line of 65-73-85-92-95F put him in the bottom half of the Kentucky Derby field pace-wise; he seemed out of sorts when he found himself well behind in the first run through the lane, and never fully recovered. Afleet Alex was rated behind a decidedly slower-than-normal Arkansas Derby paceline (73-74-83 for the first three calls), making his 96F and 108 Beyer Speed Figure even better than it looked. And Smarty Jones had a beautiful paceline for a rateable Kentucky Derby contender with 81-83-91-96-96F.
One week earlier, Sidney’s Candy waltzed through a synthetic 53-63-77-90-93F Santa Anita Derby paceline and left good horses for dead through the stretch. In the Blue Grass Stakes, Odysseus led early in an eerily similar paceline of 55-61-75 for the first three calls yet was nowhere to be found late, although he reportedly did suffer an injury in the running. This makes Sidney’s Candy look even better, sure, but the question isn’t what Sidney’s Candy can do after being allowed to set a leisurely and uncontested pace. The question is how Sidney’s Candy will react to a frantic Kentucky Derby dirt pace, especially if he is behind it.
Blue Grass winner Stately Victor also looks strikingly similar pace-wise to Santa Anita Derby runnerup Setsuko – except that he has more than enough earnings to guarantee a spot in Kentucky, and Setsuko doesn’t. Stately Victor’s personal Blue Grass paceline was 41-52-71-87-90F compared to Setsuko’s 36-53-71-82-90F. Numbers-wise, Stately Victor made his big run around the turn and into the stretch, while Setsuko’s was more of a belated final quarter-mile rally.
Stately Victor might just be getting good at the right time, but his earlier dirt numbers don’t compare with his Blue Grass form. That makes it easy to assume – fairly or unfairly - that he moved up on synthetics. However, the Derby pace should suit his style, so a 30-to-1 price might make him worth a flyer. Somebody is very possibly going to star in the role of deep closer, and if Eskendereya doesn’t make that adjustment smoothly, all sorts of scenarios are opened up.