04/24/2016 10:29AM

Watchmaker: Kentucky Derby may not set up for closers

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Wood Memorial winner Outwork isn't a pure need-the-lead type and may be asked to rate in the Kentucky Derby.

As has been noted in this space, the last four major Grade 1, $1 million Kentucky Derby preps – the Arkansas Derby, the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass, and the Santa Anita Derby – were all fast early/slow late races.

To put it another way, these four Derby preps fell apart late after fast early paces. And the running styles that mostly filled out the top three spots in these races were pretty much what you would expect in such races. Take a look:

Arkansas Derby – The first three finishers were deep closers.

Wood Memorial – The second- and third-place finishers were closers.

Blue Grass – The first three finishers were deep closers.

Santa Anita Derby – The first two finishers were closers.

But if you think this automatically means that the Kentucky Derby will fall apart late after a fast early pace just like the four preps that immediately preceded it, think again. Other folks have already talked about it, and it is sure to be discussed more as Derby Day approaches, but it is entirely possible the Derby will have a pace personality completely different from the most recent preps.

One of the ironies of this Derby prep season is almost all of the speed horses who conspired to put such a similar, and strong, pace stamp on the Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass, Wood, and Arkansas Derby, have fallen out of the Kentucky Derby picture, just like they fell back in the late running of their corresponding preps.

What that has left is a Kentucky Derby field largely populated with closers; closers, I might add, who built their credentials in races with the sort of pace they might not come close to seeing in Louisville.

Of the 20 currently in the Derby on points, the only ones who could be considered speed horses are Danzing Candy, Outwork, and Nyquist.

Right here, there are three things to note:

First, the first two also-eligibles currently for the Derby are Fellowship and Adventist, and they are closers. So a change in the projected Derby pace scenario isn’t imminent.

Second, while Nyquist and Outwork are horses who are naturally comfortable on or right with the pace, they are by no means need-the-lead types. Danzing Candy looks like he might be, but Nyquist proved in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile that he can perform effectively from just about anywhere, and Outwork successfully conceded the early lead when he won the Wood Memorial.

Lastly, Dave Grening reported that when Outwork worked on Friday, he worked from behind two horses, taking kickback, and did well. That might be a tip off to strategy considered for him in the Derby, and does have the potential to lessen the pace pressure.

Of course, all it takes is two horses and their jockeys to make a speed duel. You can also get a race to fall apart with just one headstrong speed horse who can’t get the distance. I’m not saying that’s all that Danzing Candy is, but that is what he was in the Santa Anita Derby when he went much too fast early, and gave way badly late.

However, on paper, the pace in this Kentucky Derby seems very different than the paces many of the more accomplished members of this field saw when they forged their credentials. Keep that in mind as the Derby handicapping starts to get serious.

Why was Stanford left alone on easy lead?

Speaking of paces, the pace in Saturday’s Charles Town Classic, won by Stanford, was curious. That isn’t something one would expect to say about a $1.25 million race, but …

Stanford certainly figured to be involved in the pace. But you also had two horses breaking from the 1 and 2 holes with a fairly short run to the first turn who, even if totally overmatched, were stretch-out sprinters with traces of positional speed. You also had a former stretch-out sprinter in post 3 with tactical route speed. And then you had Donworth in post 4, who was certainly fast enough to make the front, and whose connections said would be allowed to run “freely.”

Stanford broke right on the button. The horses from the 1, 2, and 3 posts never attempted to go. Donworth did not break on the button, was immediately taken in hand, perhaps from being in tight, but then was taken in hand even more and steered to the four or five path on the first turn – Charles Town is a bull ring; ground loss there is very meaningful – and was, at that point behind such a deep closer as Hard Aces. Incredible.

The result of all this was Stanford fell into the easiest lead imaginable. You know you’re walking up front when the admirable Page McKenney, a closer at heart, is the one prompting your pace. They went around the track one-two – shocking, I know – with Donworth managing to get third.

How easy was Stanford’s lead? The only other three-turn race like the Charles Town Classic on the card was race 3, a first-level allowance race at 1 1/16 miles, in which the pace couldn’t have been suicidal since the horse who was a narrowly beaten second pressed the early lead.

Anyway, here’s a fractional comparison:

Race 3, $24,500 allowance – 23.93 seconds, 48.38, 1:13.47.

Race 12, $1.25 million CT Classic – 24.75, 48.86, 1:13.75.

The Met Mile has been mentioned as a possible next start for Stanford. I don’t think he’ll get the kind of base on balls there he got on Saturday.