There's always some speed in the Derby. What makes this year's collection so unusual is that there are as many as seven horses whose running styles suggest they will either battle for the early lead or be dangerously close to it. Rule, Sidney's Candy, Line of David, Conveyance and Super Saver are confirmed speedballs. American Lion and Discreetly Mine have shown enough early lick in previous starts to suggest they will compromised by the pace scenario. Even horses like Endorsement, Jackson Bend and Paddy O'Prado might find themselves too close to the pace for their own good Saturday.
"I'm expecting another pace meltdown like 2001, when Monarchos came from the clouds to win it and Point Given was far too close to the pace, or one like 2005, when Giacomo came from the clouds to win it," said ESPN racing analyst Randy Moss, who publishes the Moss Pace Figures for the Daily Racing Form. "If indeed you get the kind of pace I am expecting then it will become radioactive. Anyone who is anywhere close to the lead will have very little chance to be around at the finish."
Giacomo was among the weaker Kentucky Derby winners in recent times. But he was a 50-1 shot who benefited from an insanely fast early pace, with fractions of :22.28 and :45.38. Sitting 18th early, he was in a perfect spot as the front-runners ruined any chance they had. The horses who were first, second, third and fourth after a half-mile finished 16th, 18th, ninth and tenth.
Even a horse who is sixth or seventh in the early going can be in big trouble if the pace is too fast. Point Given was sixth down the backstretch, less then five lengths behind one of the fastest paces in Derby history. He made a bold move on the second turn and was second at the top of the stretch. But he was out of gas. As he tired in the stretch, Monarchos and 55-1 shot Invisible Ink both made late moves and got by him to finish one-two. Point Given went on to win the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell and Travers, proving he was clearly the best of his crop.
The trainers, jockeys and owners readying their horses for Saturday surely know what could be in store for their speed types. Some may come to the conclusion that it's too late to try to change a horse's running style. Others may try, but that's something that rarely works in the Derby. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas espouses the theory that there's an extra adrenaline rush involved in the running of the Derby that doesn't exist in any other race and that it always affects the pace scenario. It's far from the type of atmosphere in which you can ask a horse that normally wants to go to the lead to try to relax and come from off the pace.
"Some horses have the type of personality where they can make that adjustment," Moss said.
"Some horses don't. To me, Sidney's Candy is the big question mark in the race. He's going to have to sit off the pace or else get caught up in that huge speed duel, and no one knows if he's capable of doing that."
The key is often the time for the opening half-mile. The two fastest over the past 20 years were the :44.86 they ripped off in 2001 and the :45.38 opening half in 2005. If this Derby field can somehow get through the first four furlongs in about :46.50, everything will change. That's just not likely to happen.
The morning-line favorite Lookin At Lucky could be in a good spot. He usually comes from mid-flight in his races. Dublin, another who will take money at the betting windows, has a similar running style, and so does Awesome Act. But the runners who might have the biggest advantage are the confirmed closers, horses like Giacomo and Monarchos, who could only win if the race fell apart and set up their late charges to the wire. Among this year's field, the two who best fit that bill are Florida Derby winner Ice Box and Blue Grass winner Stately Victor. Neither is among the most talented horses in the race. Then again, that might not matter.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.