05/13/2011 2:48PM

Hard to make sense of slow Kentucky Derby pace

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Animal Kingdom was a thoroughly deserving and admirable winner of the 137th Kentucky Derby, but the race was one of the most strangely run Triple Crown races in the modern era. The opening six furlongs in 1:13.40 were the slowest on a fast Derby track in 64 years. The race unfolded so slowly that Zenyatta could have been on the lead. Seriously.

Six months earlier, when the Breeders’ Cup Classic was run over the same 10 furlongs at Churchill Downs, First Dude was in front after six furlongs in 1:11.01, with Quality Road, Haynesfield, and Espoir City all within a length. Zenyatta, one of history’s great stretch-runners, was last of 12 and 12 1/2 lengths behind the leader. Using the six-lengths-to-a-second yardstick, that means she ran her first six furlongs right around 1:13.20 – a little faster than Shackleford’s 1:13.40 as he led the Derby field at the quarter pole.

Was the quickness of the track terribly different? Only mildly so, and in a way that just reinforces how slow the Derby pace was: The track was actually quicker on Derby Day than Classic Day. Animal Kingdom’s winning time of 2:02.04 was quicker than the Classic clocking of 2:02.38 but received a lower rating than the Classic from every figure-maker under the sun, including Beyer Speed Figures of 103 in the Derby versus 112 in the Classic.

So if anything, the Derby pace should have been quicker, not 12 to 15 lengths slower, than the one in the Classic. Instead, they were radically different. It’s no coincidence that the horses running 1-2-3-4 after six furlongs in the Classic finished 8-12-10-11, and that only two horses in the field of 12 ran their final half-miles in under 50 seconds: Blame (49.95) and Zenyatta (49.11).

In the Derby, the first 13 horses under the wire ran their final half-mile in under 50 seconds, and nine of them cracked 49, running faster final half-miles than Zenyatta. Animal Kingdom came home in 47.61. Dialed In, last early, rocketed home while shading 47 flat and still finished only eighth as the favorite.

None of this detracts from Animal Kingdom’s performance. He was a decisive winner in a cleanly run race while making just his fifth career start, and he rallied into that slow pace after being 12th behind a pokey (48.63) opening half. He still has license to improve and should have plenty left in the tank after racing just once since March 26.

The unusual Derby pace dynamics may be more relevant in assessing the prospects of other major Preakness contenders, specifically the horses who were first and last after that historically slow opening six furlongs.

Shackleford is a gritty front-runner who was good enough to spurt away from Nehro when challenged at the top of the stretch before fading late in the Derby. Some will upgrade his chances because the Preakness is a shorter race. One also could argue he has gotten two straight dream trips – an uncontested lead on an arguably speed-favoring Gulfstream track in the Florida Derby and then the early cakewalk in the Derby.

Then there’s Dialed In. The Florida Derby winner was no bargain as the 5.10-1 favorite in a wide-open Derby but may have shown more in defeat than he did in his Holy Bull and Florida Derby victories. After sleepwalking through the first six furlongs in 1:16.39, he passed 11 of his 18 opponents through the final half-mile with remarkable fourth and fifth quarters of 23.19 and 23.76. With a faster pace to run at in the Preakness, he could have a greater say in the outcome than he did in Louisville.

Hall of Fame voters get it right

Three cheers for the Hall of Fame voters, who selected three neglected racemares and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer as the four inductees for 2011.

Hollendorfer had earned his place through an outstanding career even before Blind Luck’s remarkable cross-country campaign last year brought him widespread attention outside California. The enshrinements of Open Mind (a foal of 1986), Safely Kept (1986), and Sky Beauty (1990) were long overdue. They had been stuck in a bottleneck due to the rule, finally changed last year, that each Hall class had to consist of precisely one jockey, one trainer, one male, and one female racehorse.

In voting for all three fillies, voters were correcting an oversight at the expense of opting for bigger and more current names, many of them also deserving, including the jockeys Garrett Gomez and John Velazquez, and some who did not even make the final ballot this year, including Steve Asmussen, Ghostzapper, and Ashado. They’re all odds-on to get there at some point, and not as belatedly as the three fillies.