Winning Kentucky Derby Running Styles Since 1990
By Dana Byerly, Hello Race Fans Co-founder

Orb, a deep closer, winning the 2013 Kentucky Derby (Eclipse Sportswire)

When it comes to winning Kentucky Derby running styles there area a few causally accepted truths: Pacesetters and closers rarely win. We wondered, is this true?

In order to easily understand what kinds of running styles have produced wins, we wanted to be able to visualize the running styles in addition to seeing it as raw data. To produce the raw data we looked at Kentucky Derby charts going back to 1990 and derived the amount of lengths the winner was behind the leader at each point of call.

Charts list lengths in the running line for each horse, but the length notes the amount of distance the horse is ahead of the horse behind it. Take I’ll Have Another’s 2012 Kentucky Derby running line:

Screenshot 2017-04-23 13.30.53

At the first point of call (1/4 mile mark) he was in 6th place, a head in front of Take Charge Indy (full chart here). In order to determine how many lengths he was off the leader, we add the lengths for horses in positions 1-5 (.2 + 1.5 + .2 + .2 + 2.5 = 4.6). For the distance of “head” we used .2 and the distance of “neck” we used .3. We also rounded to keep results at either a whole number or .5. For example we used 4.5 at the first point of call for I’ll Have Another instead of 4.6. If you don’t feel like doing all that work you’re in luck, you can grab our spreadsheet here!

What, if anything, did this exercise uncover? Bearing in mind that we’re looking at one data point in a vacuum, the only thing we can say for certain that we’ve uncovered an easy way to visualize running styles for Kentucky Derby winners! Without considering pace, post position, ground loss, field size, track condition and any other factors that might contribute to a better understanding, we can only use this as a quick reference.

To read the charts below, 0 on the vertical axis is the lead, any distance behind the lead is below 0 and any distance above 0 is the amount the leader is ahead of the next horse. At the bottom are the points of call as they correspond to the charts. Each line is a horse, and you can hover over the point of call for each line to see more information about the horse. For example, if you hover over the bottom-most line at the first chart at the 1/2 mile mark you’ll see that in the 2007 Street Sense was 19 lengths behind the leader at this point in the race.

While there’s no conclusive Kentucky Derby running style angle, there are still a few items of note. In terms of myth busting, the notion that pacesetters don’t usually win is correct in this time frame. Only War Emblem had and kept the lead from the 1/4 mile mark while Go for Gin is the only additional winner to grab and keep the lead by the 1/2 mile mark.

On the other hand the perception that closers don’t frequently win isn’t correct. There’s no fixed definition of how many lengths behind constitutes a closer, but in 27 runnings 8 winners (29.6%) were more than 10 lengths behind the winner at the 1/2 mile mark and 11 (40.7%) more than 8 lengths behind at the same point. That number shrinks to 6 (22.2%) being 8 or more lengths behind the winner at the 3/4 mile mark.

Are there trends when we isolate each decade?

Closers did a small bit better than stalkers in the 90s but on the whole everyone in this decade was a bit closer to the leader by the 3/4 mile mark.

The aughts were evenly split between closers and stalkers but the closers were more “stone closers,” remaining further back for longer, than in any other decade.

After Always Dreaming won the 2017 Derby stalkers and closers were evenly split. It should also be noted that with the exception of Orb, the closers have not come from that far back. Stay tuned to see which trend emerges continues in the next two runnings!

What does this tell us about this year’s Kentucky Derby field? Mostly that running style is only one of many angles to consider. As always, it’s best to consider the field as a whole and try to determine how the race will unfold and who will benefit. As always, good luck and have fun!

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