04/12/2009 11:00PM

Derby contender short list


As startling as the assertion will appear, if handicappers can agree on the pair of propositions below, the fascinating 2009 Kentucky Derby field might be reduced to an obvious favorite and two upset possibilities. In addition, chances are good the "obvious" favorite will not be the actual betting favorite, and this is a wonderful opportunity to anticipate.

One, and notwithstanding the undeniable changes in the traditional ground rules, the Derby remains very much the province of performance plus pedigree.

Two, the factors most likely to defeat improving non-claiming 3-year-olds will be a swifter pace while moving ahead in class.

Add to the second proposition the change from the relative comforts of middle distances to the classic 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs and handicappers should appreciate the plight of several of this season's leading candidates, including but not limited to I Want Revenge, Pioneerof the Nile, Friesan Fire, Papa Clem, Old Fashioned, and probably Dunkirk. Each of them suffers a serious pace disadvantage of one kind or another.

The tens of thousands of handicappers who care to dispute the matter are invited to examine the Quirin-style speed and pace figures below, and in turn to the selected comparisons that follow. For each of the prelims listed, the par figure at the pace call and the final time is 110, and at the pace call 2 points equals one length. We begin with Quality Road, who has impressed the most and remains the "obvious" selection.

H Quality Road


Florida Derby (G1)113114AF111

Fountain of Youth (G2)128115FF113

H I Want Revenge

Gotham Stakes (G3)104115SF113

Wood Memorial (G1)104110AA103

H Pioneerof the Nile

Santa Anita Derby (G1)110108AA96

San Felipe Stakes (G2)97106SS90

Robert B. Lewis (G2)101112AA95

H Friesan Fire

Louisiana Derby (G2)101111SA104

Risen Star Stakes (G3)100107SS 97

Lecomte Stakes (G3)95106SS94

H Papa Clem

Arkansas Derby (G2)108115AF99

Louisiana Derby (G2)102104SA91

Robert B. Lewis (G2)104111AA94

H Old Fashioned

Arkansas Derby (G2)112114AF98

Rebel Stakes (G2)119108FA98

Remsen Stakes (G2)93108SA100

H Dunkirk

Florida Derby (G1)109112AF108

GP Alw109106AS98

H Musket Man

Illinois Derby (G2)104108AA98

Tampa Bay Derby (G3)97104SS90

H General Quarters

Blue Grass Stakes (G1)105110AA95

Sam Davis Stakes (G3)106110AA102

H Hold Me Back

Blue Grass Stakes (G1)102108AA93

Lane's End Stakes (G2)94107SS97

With one exception, none of the colts has demonstrated an ability to run faster than par for six furlongs and faster than par at the wire, which Quality Road has demonstrated twice, and powerfully, responding to high-quality pressure in both instances. The exception, Old Fashioned on the front in the Arkansas Derby, where he held second in a good performance, is telltale. As indicated by his performances in the Rebel Stakes and then the Arkansas Derby, Old Fashioned personifies the common denominator of the speed and pace interplay; that is, when the pace figure improves, the speed figure declines, and vice-versa. Old Fashioned won't be running in the Derby anyway, because he was injured in the Arkansas Derby.

That telltale interplay of pace and speed figures does not support the cause of colts such as I Want Revenge, Friesan Fire, Pioneerof the Nile, Papa Clem, General Quarters, or any other that might will be apt to challenge Quality Road near the mile call of the Kentucky Derby. As he did to Dunkirk in the Florida Derby, Quality Road can be expected at that point to bear down relentlessly, with the challengers unable to keep pace. Friesan Fire's pace figures are particularly dismal. He will go as a popular but unsupportable underlay.

A few dissenting observations on other contenders certain to run as underlays must be pressed, beginning with I Want Revenge and his horrible trip in the Wood Memorial. Trip handicappers have continuously displayed an unenviable instinct to confuse the incidental and the fundamental, as with trips and pace. A basic principle of trip handicapping holds, or should, that a troubled trip in a low-rated race is meaningless. Although the Wood Memorial is hardly a low-rated race, the pace was weak as water, and so were the New York colts I Want Revenge managed to overhaul. A similar trip in the Florida Derby would have left I Want Revenge badly beaten.

Although Dunkirk presents a special case, figure analysts might consider the following comparison.

H Big Brown


Florida Derby (G1)124113FF106

GP Alw126116FF104

H Dunkirk

Florida Derby (G1)109112AF108

GP Alw109106AA98

Despite the numerous references to the 2008 Derby winner, on the numbers Dunkirk represents no match and a poor comparison to Big Brown, who benefited as well from a spectacular 2-year-old performance on the turf at Saratoga. Assuming the colt runs, Dunkirk will arrive at Churchill Downs on a flimsy foundation for winning the most viciously debated competition on the American calendar. Still, this $3.7 million son of Unbridled's Song is talented, and forced Quality Road to extend himself throughout the stretch of the Florida Derby. Quality Road should be expected to repulse the Pletcher stable star again, unless Dunkirk possesses a definite class edge. The putative superiority on class must be significant, not a mere edge. That's plausible, but unlikely.

Before dealing with the oddly complicated dimensions presented by Pioneerof the Nile, figure analysts and handicappers at large who will be skeptics might consider the comparisons among the pace figures of this year's leading contenders, and contrasted with the speed and pace combinations of selected Derby winners of recent acquaintance. In every instance, the speed and pace combination was recorded in the Grade 1 stepping-stone just prior to the Kentucky Derby.

Big Brown124-113

Smarty Jones115-114

Fusaichi Pegasus112-116

Silver Charm122-112

Thunder Gulch112-113

Sunday Silence116-115

Winning Colors115-115


It does not happen often, and should not recur this year, but the speed and pace combination of Barbaro extends a lifeline to the numerous colts unable to supersede par early and late on the cusp of America's race.

And not because they have trained in Dubai, but to dispense with the hopes of Desert Party and Regal Ransom, handicappers should appreciate the ability ratings of 111 and 112 assigned to the pair by The Racing Post in the Group 2 UAE 2000 Guineas and the Group 2 UAE Dubai Derby reflect a pair of Group 3 performances. The Kentucky Derby demands a higher order of ability than Group 3.

Finally, probably the colt most likely to upset the pace analysis that so favors Quality Road is the stubbornly rank and difficult-to-train Pioneerof the Nile. As the lawyers concede, let's stipulate that if Pioneerof the Nile runs rank in the early stages as he has in his past two victories at Santa Anita, the colt is destined to lose. Pioneerof the Nile pulled a strangling Garrett Gomez to the front approaching the half-mile pole in the Santa Anita Derby. Still, and although the opposition was second-rate, the Bob Baffert-trained Pioneerof the Nile prevailed in decent time.

Let's stipulate too that Pioneerof the Nile cannot win the Kentucky Derby by stalking the pace, or even by running in the middle of the pack. Baffert knows as much. His colt was intended to make one late run in the Santa Anita Derby, but the tactics changed when two speed types were forced to scratch. Pioneerof the Nile also pressed the sluggish pace of the San Felipe Stakes, and looked ordinary or worse in victory.

But what if Pioneerof the Nile lags towards the rear of the Derby pack and launches one late run?

It's true that one-run closers cannot be expected to win the Kentucky Derby on the square, only if the pace collapses, or at least weakens noticeably. If Quality Road or any other first-run colt draws off powerfully in the upper stretch, Pioneerof the Nile should not win regardless. But if a fast, contested pace softens the front flight in the least, Pioneerof the Nile will be charging at them and powerfully.

In the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 7, Pioneerof the Nile remained a well-beaten sixth of nine in the upper stretch. He looked hopelessly lost. In the aftermath of the victory over Papa Clem and I Want Revenge, jockey Gomez admitted he had expected to finish third, as even powerful one-run closers normally will in classy company. But Pioneerof the Nile delivered a final five-sixteenths of 29-flat on that day. Three-year-olds of February do not often do that.

Bob Baffert knows 3-year-olds, he has persistently trumpeted the untapped talent of this green colt, and he knows he holds an ace up his sleeve. He trains the fastest finisher in the Derby by a wide margin. Quality Road may be expected to repulse Dunkirk, all right, but once he does that, he may not be capable of holding Pioneerof the Nile safe.