04/25/2013 4:19PM

Byron King: Kentucky Derby pace scenario a matter of grouping

Barbara D. Livingston
Falling Sky looks the horse most likely to try to take his chances on the lead in the Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – As of nine days before the Kentucky Derby, most of the Derby horses are completing their final preparations, with most having one more workout left before next Saturday’s race.

Many excited horseplayers are getting preparing, too – poring over past performances, watching replays, and forming opinions. And this Thursday, I was no different – going through the Derby prospects and assigning them into five running-style categories in an effort to get a feel for the pace of Derby.

Here are those five groups of runners as I see them – based on the top 19 ranked horses in Daily Racing Form ’s Derby Watch – plus adding longshot Golden Soul. I chose him over the 20th-ranked horse in Derby Watch, Titletown Five, who is in essentially a must-win scenario in the Derby Trial if he is to make the Derby.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

If that happens, that would change the pace picture – adding a notable speed horse.

Bear in mind that the post positions, defections/additions from the Derby in the coming days, and racing luck will affect where the horses listed below end up in the early stages of the race.


Barring the addition of Titletown Five, this year’s Derby has only four horses who want to race on the pace or close to it after a half-mile. In order of their perceived speed, these are Falling Sky, Goldencents, Verrazano, and Govenor Charlie.

Falling Sky looks the most likely to try to take his chances on the lead, as a longshot whose best hope is try to steal the race, as War Emblem did in 2002 (the Derby’s last wire-to-wire winner). Goldencents, by nature of his headstrong ways, likely won’t be far back, and Verrazano, probably the most controllable of the group, will try to be positioned in the clear on the outside, assuming his draw affords him that luxury.

Govenor Charlie acts the least quick of the front-runners, but his trainer, Bob Baffert, typically likes his riders to be aggressive for a few strides out of the gate, getting their mounts into the race.


Six horses can fairly be classified as stalkers: Itsmyluckyday, Oxbow, Vyjack, Frac Daddy, Lines of Battle, and Palace Malice.

Itsmyluckyday is typically the most forward, having usually rated a length or two off the leader after the opening half- mile.

The others have been a little more erratic in terms of style, with horses such as Oxbow and Vyjack sometimes racing on the lead or from off the pace. So predicting their placement is, realistically, guesswork.

Note that Oxbow was farther off the pace than usual in the Arkansas Derby, racing ninth of 10 early, and never got involved thereafter. So look for jockey Gary Stevens to be a little more aggressive with him early, given this horse’s best races have come when he has been within three lengths of the pacesetter.

Midpack closers

Five horses fall in the midpack closing category, led in order of pace by Overanalyze, Will Take Charge, Black Onyx, Charming Kitten, and Mylute.

They don’t always race in a midpack position, with Overanalyze changing style the most from race to race. But if jockey Rafael Bejarano rides him as patiently as he did when the colt rallied to take the Arkansas Derby from seventh, Overanalyze may again fall in midpack.

Deep closers

Last up are come-from-the-cloud horses, led by Florida Derby winner Orb, who nearly was classified as a midpack closer, being a little more tactical than the others. Other deep closers include Normandy Invasion, Golden Soul, Revolutionary, and Java’s War.

Revolutionary and Java’s War both have a history of breaking slowly, and it’s difficult to envision their suddenly becoming sharp-breaking gate horses after the long loading process of 20 horses in the Derby.

I would expect both horses to be patiently ridden with Julien Leparoux on Java’s War and Calvin Borel on Revolutionary.

Envisioning the pace

Perhaps because of the new points-based system by which horses gain entry to the Derby, in contrast to the old graded earnings format, there appears to be less speed in the Derby than in recent years.

There is no sprinter in this year’s field like last year with Trinniberg, who forced Bodemeister to set furious splits, which contributed to I’ll Have Another running down the leg-weary front-runner.

This year’s modest pace makeup seemingly gives an edge to the front-runners and stalkers, with GoldencentsVerrazano, and Itsmyluckyday the ones best poised to capitalize – and conversely is a disadvantage for such talented closers as Orb, Normandy Invasion, and Revolutionary.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the year that War Embelm won the Kentucky Derby. It was 2002, not 1992.