The old adage of "pace makes the race" was never more true than in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, won by Animal Kingdom on Saturday at Churchill Downs. Traditionally, the early pace in the Kentucky Derby is extremely fast, with the pace through six furlongs more closely resembling a sprint race rather than a mile and a quarter classic. This year, however, the speed hung back in the early stages, leaving us with a historically slow early tempo. That lack of early speed had a significant impact on which horses could win the Derby and which were in a hopeless position.
Before we get into how Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Kentucky Derby, let's first take a look at the fractional splits from Saturday:
¼ Mile: 23.74
½ Mile: 48.63
¾ Mile:: 1:13.40
The splits at the mile and the finish weren't out of line with what we've seen in recent decades at the Derby. With the exception of the freak effort of Monarcos over a lightning fast track in 2001, most Derby winners hit the wire at around 2:02. So, in terms of overall, unadjusted final time, Saturday's Derby was probably a bit better than average. The part of the race that turned out to be well out-of-line with recent history were the fractions during the first six furlongs.
I went back through the fractional splits for every Kentucky Derby since 1980 and found a startling revelation: Saturday's Kentucky Derby had some of the slowest ¼, ½ and ¾ mile splits in over 30 years. Not only did the 2011 Kentucky Derby lack any significant early pace, the lack of pace was historical. Below are the ranks of each early split in the 2011 Derby compared to every Derby since 1980 (32 races):
¼ Mile: 31st of 32 (slowest: 1980 - 24.00)
½ Mile: 32nd of 32
¾ Mile: 32nd of 32
Only the opening quarter-mile of the 1980 Derby (set by Plugged Nickel), was slower than the 2011 Derby. The other two early splits were each the slowest fractions we've seen in at least 32 years.
Okay, so the pace was slow; how did that impact the Derby? To answer that question, we need to look no further than this year's favorite, Dialed In.
The Nick Zito trained Dialed In is the text book definition of a stone-cold closer - he's going barely break into a sweat within the first half-mile and will spend the rest of the race trying to run past every other horse in the field. It's a tough way to run a race because closers are heavily dependent on the pace in front of them. If the pace is fast, the horses in front use up more energy and find it harder to sustain their speed in the final furlongs. If the pace is slow, as it was yesterday, the horses at the front won't slow down as quickly, making it difficult for a closer to rally to the front. While closers run fast in the later stages, they are greatly dependent on other horses slowing down in order to make it to the front.
In yesterday's Kentucky Derby, Dialed In ran the fastest final half-mile of any colt in the field. His 4th quarter split was 23.21 seconds (next fastest: Brilliant Speed - 23.48), and his final split was 23.79 (next fastest: Twice the Appeal - 24.01). But while Dialed In finished the final half-mile the fastest of any colt in the field, the fact that the horses in front of him did not significantly tire on the turn and in the stretch doomed him to an 8th place finish. If you're a horse that is a stone-cold closer, you're not going to win many two-turn races where the early speed goes 1:13+ for six.
With the pace eliminating the chances of the closers, the 2011 Derby came down to horses that could stay near the lead in the early stages and could negotiate a clean trip around the Churchill Downs main track. Animal Kingdom was able to do both in fine fashion.
Aside from pace, the move a horse makes or doesn't make on the final turn has a huge impact on which horse ends up in the winner's circle. On Saturday, the slow pace allowed Animal Kingdom to secure an easy mid-pack trip just a few lengths off the early speed, but it was the move this colt made on the far turn that allowed him to win, not the final charge down the lane.
As the field approached the final turn, Animal Kingdom sat in behind a group of four or five horses that tracked Shackleford soon after leaving the starting gate. On the turn, jockey John Velazquez split two horses and passed another on the inside to pick up valuable position. By the time Animal Kingdom hits the top of the stretch, he was four-wide from the rail, in fourth position, and just a couple of lengths behind the leaders. At that point it's just a matter of time until Animal Kingdom is able wear down his rivals on his way to relatively easy 2 ¾ lengths win over Nehro, Mucho Macho Man and Shackleford.
Pace and trip: the two keys to Animal Kingdom's win in the 2011 Kentucky Derby.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Two weeks from the Kentucky Derby is the second jewel of the Triple Crown series, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland. The Preakness is a slightly shorter race that the Kentucky Derby - 1 3/16th miles, instead of 1 1/4 at Churchill Downs. Additionally, the Preakness field will not feature a 20-horse starting gate since the race is limited to a field of 14 starters. Trip is still important at Pimlico, but the race is nowhere near as hectic as the 20-horse Derby.
Trainer Graham Motion is already on the record as stating that Animal Kingdom will go to Pimlico to try and win the second leg of the Triple Crown. The versatility he displayed in the Derby, along with all of his races in his brief career, make him an extremely interesting prospect going forward. Whether or not he'll be able to win at Pimlico and make an attempt at the Triple Crown remains to be seen. If he is able to win at Pimlico, Animal Kingdom absolutely possesses the pedigree to excel at the mile and a half distance of the Belmont Stakes.
Nick Zito has indicated that Dialed In will also move on to the Preakness where he'll be hoping for a bit more speed in the early stages. The possibility of Flashpoint entering the Preakness, a colt that excels at sprint distances, will be welcome news in the Dialed In camp. Other "new shooters" possible for the Preakness are: Astrology, Concealed Identity, Dance City, King Congie, Norman Asbjornson, Mr. Commons, Prime Cut, and Sway Away.
Entries and post positions for the Preakness will be drawn on Wednesday, May 18, with the race on Saturday, May 21 at 6:19pm Eastern Time. The undercard will be televised on Versus and the Preakness Stakes will air on NBC.