04/27/2011 6:27PM

Derby pace softens

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It has been nine years since the Kentucky Derby was won by the pacesetter. The difference between the likely 2011 pacesetter and 2002 front-running winner War Emblem is huge.

War Emblem was fast. The 112 Beyer he earned in his final Derby prep was seven points higher than the last-start figure of any in the field.

Comma to the Top, likely pacesetter this year, does not possess a combined pace-speed advantage. Comma to the Top earned a 97 Beyer last out, same as Midnight Interlude and a point below the 98’s earned by Archarcharch and Nehro.

Though he may set easy fractions, Comma to the Top has no edge other than he should have the lead. That is not a bad place. Now, if Comma to the Top could only finish.

Decisive Moment has been positioned one-two all eight starts. Although his claim to fame is a pair of runner-up finishes in Grade 3’s, and his career-high Beyer is 91, Decisive Moment might be the key to the Derby even his chance to win is minimal.

Decisive Moment and first-time Derby jockey Kerwin Clark are likeliest to pressure Comma to the Top. The question is how much pressure can they apply?

Decisive Moment set the pace at minor Delta Downs and at Fair Grounds, when he went the opening half in 49.24 seconds. It is tougher at Churchill Downs against better horses. If he establishes a forward position, Decisive Moment may not be around long.

There are other pace-pressers in the field. None are particularly quick.

Uncle Mo, fast as a 2-year-old, dawdled on the lead both starts at 3. It seems he has lost his gas. Furthermore, it would be out of character for trainer Todd Pletcher to instruct Uncle Mo’s jockey to seize command. As for a finish, it has not happened yet this year.

Pants on Fire might provide pressure, yet the only races in which he made the lead were races that unfolded at an unusually slow clip. He will be forwardly placed, which might be the right spot.

Shackleford proved stubborn in the Florida Derby after he made the lead no one seemed to want. He could provide front-end pressure, though he hardly qualifies as a “burner.”

Barring an early duel between Comma to the Top and Decisive Moment, the pace of the Derby should be tepid.

If so, that will benefit two horses with qualifications that this handicapper initially perceived as sketchy – Midnight Interlude and Soldat.

The negative opinion of Midnight Interlude is based on a negative visual impression of his Santa Anita Derby win, and his lack of 2-year-old form.

But the biggest knock is Midnight Interlude’s Santa Anita Derby unfolded at such a slow pace. The notion was that in a fast-pace Kentucky Derby, Midnight Interlude would be unable to cope.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider. The defection of speedball The Factor, along with pace scrutiny of the remaining field, indicates Midnight Interlude might find himself pressing the pace in another slow-tempo race.

It remains doubtful that Midnight Interlude is good enough, but that negative “take” is less resolute.

Soldat was among the most over-rated 3-year-olds of winter. His reputation was based on easy, front-end trips in slow-pace races at Gulfstream.

When he did not get the same setup in the Florida Derby, he finished fifth as the favorite.

Ten days out, it appears that Soldat could benefit from an advantageous pace scenario under which he ran so well in Florida. And if it keeps raining at Churchill Downs, that is fine for Soldat. His career-best race was in the mud.

Attrition has slowed the likely tempo of the 2011 Kentucky Derby and boosted the chances of marginal candidates.

If the Derby unfolds with a slow pace, it might turn out premature to dismiss the chances of either Midnight Interlude or Soldat.