The old adage of "pace makes the race" was once again on full display in this year's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. A ridiculously fast early pace, and the presence of a whole lot of mud and slop, set things up perfectly for Orb and jockey Joel Rosario. As we'll see below, Orb wasn't just the best horse in the Derby, he was much the best.
Below are individual Trakus splits from yesterday's Kentucky Derby broken out by elapsed time and internal fractions. For those unfamiliar with Trakus -- it's a wireless radio frequency tracking system that utilizes tags or cards inserted into the saddle cloth of each horse and radio antennas placed around the track to record the data. The system helps to identify not only the timing of each horse during a race, but also measures factors such as ground loss.
|Lines of Battle||7th||23.52||47.38||1:11.54||1:37.39||2:04.69||23.52||23.86||24.16||25.85||27.30|
|Will Take Charge||8th||23.32||46.87||1:11.17||1:36.77||2:04.82||23.32||23.55||24.30||25.60||28.05|
One element difficult for handicappers to predict was the insane splits thrown down by Palace Malice through the first six furlongs of the race. Wearing blinkers for the first time, Palace Malice displayed a front-running style not seen at any point in his career, clicking off an opening quarter mile in 22.57 seconds, and half mile and three-quarter mile splits of 45.26 and 1:09.58, according to the Trakus data. Jockey Mike Smith stated after the race that the addition of blinker caused Palace Malice to be over aggressive and run off on his own.
Sprinters going 1:09 and change for six furlongs is considered normal. For horses attempting to go a mile and a quarter, it's a path to the rear of the field. And that's exactly what occurred.
Any horses racing on or near the lead in the Derby faded badly in deep stretch (well, all except Oxbow, which we'll get to in a second). Horses running in seven of the first eight positions after a quarter mile finished 12th(Palace Malice), 17th (Goldencents), 19th(Falling Sky), 14th(Verrazano), 18th(Vyjack), 15th (Itsmyluckyday) 16th (Frac Daddy), and 10th (Giant Finish), respectively. Horses running 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th after a quarter mile finished 1st (Orb), 3rd (Revolutionary) and 5th (Mylute). Only Java's War failed to make a bid from the back of the pack, finishing 13th. Normandy Invasion was running 11th after a quarter mile and rallied to finish 4th.
Now let's talk about Oxbow, because he deserves some attention even though he didn't win the race. Despite running the first three-quarters of a mile in a blistering 1:10.71, Oxbow fought on well in the final half-mile to finish a respectable 6thunder Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens. You could make a claim that outside of the winner, Oxbow ran the most impressive race of any horse. To run that close to a pace that hot and still hold on to finish 6th is remarkable. No other horse running near the lead early could duplicate the effort of Oxbow.
Moving on to another piece of Trakus data describing yesterday's race is the ground loss information. Below is a list of all 19 horses in the field, the distance in terms of feet each ran during the Derby, and a comparison of their trip to that of Orb.
|Lines of Battle||7th||6,677||44|
|Will Take Charge||8th||6,690||31|
Orb ran 6,721 feet during his trip over the Churchill Downs main track on Saturday, a distance that was longer than all but two other horses in the field. Runner up Golden Soul covered 80 feet less than Orb and show horse Revolutionary ran a shorter race by 84 feet. Frac Daddy (12 feet) and Vyjack (18 feet) were the only horses in the field to cover more ground than the winner.
In short, not only did Orb beat all of his rivals to the finish line, he covered more ground than any of them to do it. Orb wasn't just the best, he was by far the best.
With the Derby in the rearview mirror, it's time to look ahead to the Preakness Stakes in two weeks at Old Hill Top, Pimlico Race Course in Maryland. The field for the Preakness will begin to take shape over the next week but we already know that Orb will attempt the second jewel of the Triple Crown. The Preakness is just a tad shorter than the Derby (1 3/16 miles vs. 1 1/4 miles) and it's doubtful we'll see a pace as strong, but Orb has shown himself to be an exceptionally versatile colt and he'll be tough to beat should he run his race.
In assessing Orb's chances in the Preakness, the thing that really sticks out is the difference between his Florida Derby win and his Kentucky Derby win. In Florida, in a race with a much softer pace, Orb never raced more than four lengths off the lead (even though he's traditionally a closer). In Kentucky, he raced towards the back of the pack. In each race Orb had a different jockey (John Velazquez in Florida; Joel Rosario in Kentucky). Orb's willingness to allow the rider, any rider, to place him wherever they feel necessary at the start of the race is central to his success. If the pace is slow, the jock can move him up closer to the lead. If it's hot, they can hang back and wait for the leaders to run out of gas. That is the sign of an awfully good colt and one that may have some development left in him going forward.
Should Orb successfully navigate the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont would be quite a show. The pedigree for Orb is, quite simply, phenomenal, and he's bred to relish a distance of ground. While the chances for a Triple Crown winner are always small, it's fun to dream of the day the streak will end. Perhaps Orb is the colt to make it happen.