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 figure it out 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* for the running line data. Charts and past performances list the running lines differently. Charts list the distance for each point of call relative to the horse behind the starter.

Here’s the chart style running line for 2012 winner I’ll Have Another:

Screenshot 2017-04-23 13.30.53

Here we see that I’ll Have Another was in 6th place and a head in front of the 7th place horse at the 1/4 pole. The past performances list the distance for each point of call relative to the leader, which makes it much easier to quickly surmise the running style. Fortunately Equibase charts conveniently include both the chart and past performance style running lines.

Here’s the same information for I’ll Have Another listed in the past performance style:

Using this view we see that I’ll Have Another was 4.5 lengths behind the leader at the 1/4 pole.

Using Equibase charts we collected the running style information, you can view it here.

*Historical charts only go back to 1991, however the official Kentucky Derby site used to make charts available for dates earlier than 1991 on their individual race pages. Those charts were not included in a recent site redesign.

The distances of neck, head and nose are not numerically expressed in either running line style, so we used the following:
Neck: .03
Head: .02
Nose: .01

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 1/2 mile mark you’ll see that 2007 winner Street Sense was 20 lengths behind the leader at this point in the race.

Winning Kentucky Derby Running Style 1990-2017

Using the following definitions we can look more closely at the composition of the field at various points of call:
Running Style Position
Speed In the lead
Stalker/Presser Between .1 and 3 lengths off leader
Off the Pace Between 3 and 6 lengths off the leader
Deep Closer More than 6 lengths off the leader
At the 1/2 Mile Mark
At the 3/4 Mile Mark

In terms of myth busting, the notion that pacesetters rarely win is correct. 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 the lead and keep it by the 1/2 mile mark. Always Dreaming was the only runner to gain the lead by the 3/4 mark to make the total three.

The perception that closers rarely win is not correct. There’s no fixed definition of how many lengths behind constitutes a closer, but using our definitions above, 50% of winners (14) since 1990 were six or more lengths behind the leader at the 1/2 mile mark. At the 3/4 mark 32.1% (9) were still more than six lengths off the winner.

Below is a look at each decade.

Winning Kentucky Derby Running Style 1990-1999
Winning Kentucky Derby Running Style 2000-2009
Winning Kentucky Derby Running Style 2010-2017

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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