2014 Kentucky Derby Running Styles
By Chris Rossi, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor
They say pace makes the race, and if there’s any race on the calendar that’s guaranteed to have an honest pace, the Kentucky Derby is it. It’s always instructive to take a look at what events have led to each horse getting to the winner’s circle previously, to see if anything can be gleaned when those events are put in the context of a particular field. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the running style of each horse and attempt to place this year’s Derby entrants in their respective running style groups.
The “know them early” group
1. Vicar’s in Trouble
Two of his three wins came in wire-to-wire fashion, one in a state-bred maiden sprinting, the other in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby when getting an uncontested lead. Sandwiched between those was a stalking victory in the Grade 3 Lecomte. He’s never had to deal with the likes of the other speed in here, so it’s tough to make the case that he can repeat his frontrunning ways. Still, he will be part of the early vanguard.
10. Wildcat Red
He’s perhaps the speed of the early speed, and he’s had the benefit of utilizing that early foot over some speed-favoring tracks at Gulfstream over the winter. The Grade 2 Fountain of Youth victory is perhaps the poster child of bias-aided victories, as that particular raceday had a pronounced early speed bias. He’s never raced outside of Gulfstream Park, and he’s shown early speed in all of his races.
Lightly raced colt doesn’t need the lead, but he’s naturally fast enough early to get there if need be. He staggered home in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby after running stablemate Midnight Hawk off his feet in the stretch and has the look and feel of a horse who’s had things his own way in taking three races from four starts. It’s hard to envision him having an easy time of it up front in here.
3. Uncle Sigh
Draw a line through his Grade 1 Wood Memorial effort as he lost all chance at the start, was wide into the first turn and that was that. Going back to his Grade 3 Gotham and Grade 3 Withers efforts, we see a horse who prefers to be put into the race early, and you have to think that will be the game plan here. Do question, however, if he’s fast enough early to keep up with the other speed, and then question what kind of trip that leaves him with.
8. General a Rod
Not really a true need-the-lead type, he’s another who has naturally found himself a part of the early pace in races against Wildcat Red, who is clearly the faster of the two early. One can look at his placings in the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Grade 2 Fountain of Youth as a function of track bias and question whether he was the benefit of such bias, or whether the horses in front him were aided more. Either way, he’s got enough early kick to be part of the early pace here.
The stalkers, grinders, middle movers
He won his first three starts in state-bred company in wire-to-wire fashion, and that just may be because he was better than the competition. Since moving up in class, he’s adopted a running style that’s more grinder, where he’s happy to lay off the lead. He was part of a particularly fast early pace in the Grade 1 Wood, and he outlasted the other pacesetters late only to get nipped at the wire by the deep-closing Wicked Strong.
Hoppertunity – SCRATCHED
He’s a confirmed stalker who is most effective when keeping in touch with the field early; both of his off-the-board efforts came when he felltoo far behind early when either off slow or caught wide. His effort in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby had the feel of a true prep: he settled, waited and wasn’t really asked for run until after the race had been decided in the middle of the stretch. He’s not so much a true stalker as a grinder who may need the perfect trip in here.
5. California Chrome
While his running lines may suggest that his running style is more of a need-the-lead type, his last two efforts in the Grade 2 San Felipe and Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby found him inheriting the lead by default in races that lacked much in the way of early pace. His victory in the California Cup Derby in January is probably more indicative of his true stalking style. In that race, he stalked an above average pace and drew clear, and you have to think that will be the plan here.
Hard-knocking type was on a steady improve before throwing in a clunker when finishing last in the Grade 1 Blue Grass. He’s another, like Tapiture, who seems to grind along, content to let the pace in front of him unfold. His game effort when winning the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis came while stalking an average early pace, and he was the only horse coming after runaway Grade 2 Tampa Derby winner Ring Weekend late.
This ultra-consistent grinder seems to always fire the same race: stay in touch, advance steadily, and hope to find the wire before the others. Do question, though, if he’s hit the top of his form and whether that consistency is about what we’ll be getting performance-wise. The one thing he does have going for him is that he’s never truly run into the teeth of a hot early pace, which may benefit his stalking ways, helping him create a trip. As he showed when second in the Grade 2 Rebel, he can be game when given the opportunity.
From out of the clouds
4. Dance With Fate
Don’t let the running line in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby fool you: that was an extremely slow-paced race, and he was somewhat near early. Every effort other than the maiden-breaker had him well back early, including a sweeping, closing move when winning the Grade 1 Blue Grass last out. The surface is the obvious question mark, but there’s no question that he will be in the back half of the field early.
20. Wicked Strong
He’s something of an enigma, having such superlative New York form and suspect Florida form. There is no puzzle regarding his running style, though it’s clearly closing and devoid of any early speed. Both wins came in races where the early pace was hot enough for him to close into, and his third in the Grade 2 Remsen was impressive when considering how slow the early pace of that race was. Still, hard to know what to make of his flat form at Gulfstream earlier this winter.
16. Intense Holiday
There’s no question that he’s a stone-cold closer who loves coming wide into the stretch, but his effort in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby was odd. At the top of the stretch, he came to terms with pacesetting Vicar’s in Trouble and looked like he was poised to overtake him, then he lugged into the rail under no duress from other horses and flattened out late, even losing ground to the victor. You have to question if his running style suits the distance. as there areother, more appealing closers in here.
18. Candy Boy
His best efforts have come when running off the pace, and the change in tactics he displayed in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby was more a function of the pace scenario. Expect him to change back to the off-the-pace ways he displayed in breaking his maiden and taking the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis.
17. Commanding Curve
A dead closer who has never had the benefit of a hot pace in front of him to run at, he has had some trouble at the start of races getting off cleanly, but that hasn’t had much effect in his finish position. He has improved with each start this year and could be dangerous should a total pace meltdown unfold in front of him.
He’s gone two turns only once, and that’s giving away a lot of experience against this group that has established routing form. His Grade 1 Arkansas Derby win was perhaps one of the most impressive efforts of the entire Derby prep season: hehe stalked an above average pace and acccelerated away from those who were mounting closing bids. There’s either a lot of upside here, or that effort was a complete aberration. Hard to gauge his true running style.
7. We Miss Artie
You obviously have to question how much this horse appreciated the dirt surface, as both two-turn efforts on the main track have been lackluster without much in the way of excuses. His two wins on Polytrack did come in closing fashion and were aided by hot paces in front of him. Still, he’s shown the requisite improvement as a 3-year-old to consider if you fancy a closer.
19. Ride On Curlin
This enigmatic type has running lines all over the place, and his two wins have come sprinting. He’s had trouble putting together the breakthrough performance, and he’s tried to do that in any number of running styles. He tried prompting the pace in the Grade 3 Southwest before fading. He tried closing in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby before coming up short. He’s always around for a piece of the action at the end but just hasn’t figured it out yet.
14. Medal Count
His dirt efforts are not quite up to his form on turf and particularly Polytrack, but there are excuses if one is looking for them, particularly when he was running against the bias at Gulfstream in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth. Still, he’s shown a steady level of improvement in all starts this year under a variety of pace scenarios. While he’s not quite a closer, he’s got enough early foot to sit mid-pack before making his move.
2. Harry’s Holiday
He’s been a part of some very fast early paces on Polytrack at Turfway Park over the winter and is a total pace wild card. He’s never won when going two turns and has the look of a horse who may try to wing it on the front end and go for broke.
Pablo Del Monte – SCRATCHED
He almost took them wire-to-wire in the Grade 1 Blue Grass on a track that was not kind to front runners. That early speed was not enough to keep up with the likes of Wildcat Red and General a Rod in his two tries on dirt at Gulfstream. Both wins as a two-year-old at Keeneland sprinting in wire-to-wire fashion. Another total pace wildcard.