2017 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.

Links are to replays at YouTube. Post positions and morning line odds are noted.

The “know them early” group

17. Irish War Cry (6-1)
Has attended or set the early pace in each of his last four races.  Irish War Cry is no early speedball, however.  While he won the Grade 2 Holy Bull wire-to-wire in what was essentially a slow-paced boat race, he’s changed his tactics a bit in his last two races with dramatically different results.  In the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, he was used early, tracking just off a fast pace set by Three Rules and could not stay on.  In the Grade 2 Wood Memorial, he again tracked just off the lead of Battalion Runner and decisively put that one away in the stretch.  While he may not set the early pace, he’ll likely be forwardly placed in the early going.

5. Always Dreaming (5-1) – WINNER
Was not quite up to par when tracking the lead mid-pack in a pair of maiden sprints last summer on the NYRA circuit.  Always Dreaming broke his maiden while attending the pace on the barn switch to trainer Todd Pletcher in his 3-year-old and two-turn debut, then he won a very slow-paced first level allowance at Gulfstream gate-to-wire.  He once again attended the pace racing up in class and winning the Grade 1 Florida Derby with a comfortable, stalking trip.  He’s obviously never faced this type of pace pressure before, and while it can be assumed he will be forwardly placed, he’ll be well short of the expected leaders, going by his past pace numbers. He’s bit of a mystery running style-wise, as he’s a lightly raced horse open to improvement, and we’ve really only the Florida Derby running line to go on, as his two wins earlier this year were essentially formalities where he was never challenged early.

6. State of Honor (30-1)
Set the pace in a pair of graded stakes earlier this year in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis and the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, and both times he yielded late in the stretch.  The blinkers were taken off for his last effort in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, which was a troubled trip; he had to steady early, with jockey Julien Leparoux asking him to settle off the early speed in Three Rules.  Despite shedding the blinkers, he has the look of the likely pacesetter entering the first turn in this race.

11. Battle of Midway (30-1) – SHOW (3rd)
Took part in a protracted, three-horse, fast early pace in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby and did well to stay on for second in only his fourth career start.  He’s attended the pace in all four races despite being last of five early in the Grade 2 San Vicente.  He’s another, like Always Dreaming, that’s tough to get a read on pace wise; he’s raced only at Santa Anita, but his recent form suggests that he’s one of the horses to know early.

9. Irap (20-1)
Broke his maiden in a 31-1 shocker in the Grade 2 Blue Grass last out.  In that race, Irap had a pace and race flow advantage when inheriting the lead before the stretch in what could arguably be called a slow-paced race.  While he’s a steady, one-paced type of horse that has lost ground in the stretch in each and every one of his eight starts, he would seem to have the best shot to win this by utilizing his early speed.

The stalkers, grinders, middle movers

7. Girvin (15-1)
Like Battle of Midway, Girvin is lightly raced, and he’s raced at only one track: Fair Grounds.  While he attended the pace in his maiden-breaking debut at 6 furlongs, he has comfortably settled further back off the early pace as the distances have increased this spring.  He gets out of the gate well and doesn’t seem bothered by what develops ahead of him.  In the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, he made a winning, wide, sustaining run.  His replays suggest that he has a good head about him and doesn’t mind being on the rail, in between horses or out wide.  

19. Practical Joke (20-1)
He has always been a bit of a grinder in the mid-pack that makes a middle move.  That served him well as a 2-year old when he won back-to-back Grade 1 stakes in the Hopeful and Champagne, but as the distances have increased this spring, he’s had some trouble staying on and sealing the deal late, particularly in his last effort in the Blue Grass, when he looked all the best at the top of the stretch when he moved up to challenge Irap.  Trainer Chad Brown has been experimenting with adding blinkers in his morning works, but it does not appear they will be added for this race.  

18. Gormley (15-1)
Won sprinting on the pace in his debut, then went gate-to-wire when riding the rails from the one post in the G1 FrontRunner.  In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he was through after 6 furlongs while attending the early pace and wide the whole way, never factoring.  He attended the pace when measuring up American Anthem in the Grade 3 Sham and tried that proven formula again when Mastery ran him off his feet in the San Felipe.  Then a funny thing happened in the Santa Anita Derby.  His stablemate came over on him in first 200 yards of the race, which sort of forced him to check back off the pace, a first for a horse who’d always been within a length or two at the early calls–a happy accident that allowed him to inherit the lead in the stretch of an early fast-paced race.

16. Tapwrit (20-1)
From six starts, he’s always been a steady mid-pack presence, which is only made easier by his sluggish or troubled starts.  In the Grade 2 Blue Grass, he hesitated just a bit at the start and was wide on both turns toward the back of the pack in what was essentially a non-effort.  He won the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, an average-paced race, from mid-pack and couldn’t quite catch McCraken, who got first run on him in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis.

4. Untrapped (30-1)
Another like Tapwrit, who has always raced mid-pack from six career starts.  The addition of blinkers in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby put him into the early pace a little earlier than his previous efforts, and he proved to be flat in the lane, finishing sixth.  The blinkers come off for this race, and that should allow him to settle further off the pace, much like his third-place, mid-pack effort in the Grade 2 Rebel.

From out of the clouds

10. Gunnevera (15-1)
Stone-cold closer makes only the one run, and as the distances have increased this spring, Gunnevera’s deficit from the pacesetters has only increased.  He won the Grade 2 Saratoga Special from well out of it as the lone closer in an early fast-paced affair and was very wide while mounting a non-threatening fifth in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity.  He was wide again when going from last to first in the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot and was much closer to the early pace while finishing second in the Holy Bull, a clue as to how slow the early pace was in that race.  He got a fast pace to run at when winning the Fountain of Youth from dead last again; in the Florida Derby, he was immediately taken to the rail from the outside post and never really threatened despite closing wide to finish third.  He has always chosen the overland, wide route to mount his closing kick.

8. Hence (15-1)
It’s worth watching Hence’s maiden-breaking effort in the slop in January at Oaklawn.  In that race, he settled well off the pace, chased his stablemate on the turn, gained the lead in deep stretch and then ducked in a couple hundred yards before the wire, losing the lead momentarily, only to stick his nose in front again at the wire.  After a non-effort in the Grade 3 Southwest in which he never factored from off the pace, Hence went from last to first in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby.  That closing effort should settle his running style toward the back of the pack for this year’s Derby.

15. McCraken (5-1)
Like Gunnevera, McCraken is a closer with some graded stakes wins on his record.  He was wide the entire way when winning the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club on this track last fall and made his 3-year-old debut a winning one in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis while closing wide from off the pace.  He was undefeated before finishing third in the Grade 2 Blue Grass last time while being much closer to the early pace than usual, a sign that perhaps the Blue Grass was slow early.  He figures to be in the back half of the field entering the first turn.

1. Lookin At Lee (20-1) – PLACE (2nd)
He has only the two wins sprinting last summer at Ellis Park and has consistently closed from well off the pace, often from dead last, and has only four minor placings to show for it in his last six attempts against graded stakes company.  

12. Sonneteer (50-1)
Maiden Sonneteer is not lacking experience as he’s seen the starting gate 10 times, co-top starter in the race with State of Honor.  He’s showed improvement after moving east to Oaklawn and away from the typically speed-favoring California circuit tracks. He’s settled into a distinct closing style that is pretty unique among this group, as he’s shown that he can close both wide and up the rail, as he did when second in the Grade 2 Rebel.  

Wild cards

2. Thunder Snow (IRE) (20-1)
Qualified for this race winning the Group 2 UAE Derby at Meydan in Dubai six weeks ago.  In that race, Thunder Snow attended the early pace just off the leaders and moved comfortably wide on the turn and just edged his rival at the wire.  He won the local prep for that race, the Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas, in much the same fashion, stalking the leaders.  As a juvenile, he raced in France and England at sprint distances, including a win in a Group 1 race at Saint-Cloud.  He’s a total wild card as he’s never encountered the type of early speed on dirt that is American racing.

14. Classic Empire (4-1) – FOURTH
The reigning 2-year-old champion would normally never be a pace wild card, but it’s worth unpacking just how odd a racing life this horse has experienced thus far.  In the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga last summer, he exited the gate, looked to be settling into the race, then suddenly wheeled and threw his rider off.  This was not gate trouble: Classic Empire simply didn’t want the jockey on his back.  He then went on to win back-to-back Grade 1 races in the Breeders’ Futurity and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, doing so from a stalking position.  His 3-year-old debut was a debacle; he never threatened Irish War Cry in the Grade 2 Holy Bull from a stalking position.  After that race, he was not seen for 10 weeks due to his refusal to fully engage in training but still managed to come off the bench to win the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.  While he appears to be the type of horse that is comfortable stalking, it’s really any guess as to where he could be entering the first turn in a massive 20-horse race.

3. Fast and Accurate (50-1)
Only has the one effort on dirt at Parx in a maiden race last October, and it is perhaps the single weakest start of any horse in this field.  He then reeled off three wins in a row, culminating in a shocking 24-1 upset of the Grade 3 Spiral that punched his ticket to this race.  Fast and Accurate is usually forwardly placed, and according to his owner, he’s going to be sent to the lead.  His previous pace figures suggest he’s not fast enough early to keep up with the top “know them early” group here, though.

20. Patch (30-1)
Only three starts to judge the most lightly raced horse in the field.  He closed to finish second from well out of the clouds on debut in a 6-furlong sprint and attended the pace when breaking his maiden at one mile at Gulfstream in his second start.  Patch then was moved up in class and responded well, finishing second in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby while stalking.  Three races, three different running styles, but the best guess would have him near the early pace entering the first turn here.

13. J Boys Echo (20-1)
The replays of his races suggest that he has enough early foot to attend the early pace.  In the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot, he pressed the pace but was never really asked on the far turn.  In the Grade 3 Withers, he was placed mid-pack early and could make no headway into the slow pace ahead of him, finishing third.  In the Grade 3 Gotham, he was taken off the pace, and that resulted in a win that was in essentially closing fashion.  J Boys Echo’s last effort in the Grade 2 Blue Grass was a one-paced non-effort from mid-pack.  So he’s a bit of a wild card here, as he seems to have the ability to be more forwardly placed, but his winning efforts have come from off the pace.

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