Everything You Need to Know About the Kentucky Derby Pace

Everything You Need to Know About the Kentucky Derby Pace

When handicapping the Kentucky Derby, it’s always fun to check out unusual statistics and tidbits in regard to the race. For example, almost everyone knows that Secretariat ran the fastest Derby in history (1:59.40 seconds in 1973), just as almost everyone knows that Monarchos is the only other horse to post a final time of less than 2:00 minutes (he clocked 1:59.97 in 2001.)

But what about the fractional splits of the Kentucky Derby? Which horse holds the record for the fastest opening quarter-mile fraction? The fastest half-mile fraction? The fastest mile fraction? And what kind of an impact can a fast pace have on the outcome of the race?

To help get a feel for what constitutes a really fast pace in the Kentucky Derby, here are the top five times in history for each fractional split of the Kentucky Derby. Keep it on hand when watching the race and you’ll know right away if you’re watching one of the fastest paces in history unfold before your eyes!

Quarter Mile

1. Top Avenger – :21.80 (1981)
2. Bombay Duck – :22.00 (1975)
3. Songandaprayer – :22.25 (2001)
4. Spanish Chestnut – :22.28 (2005)
5. Bodemeister – :22.32 (2012)

Half Mile
1. Songandaprayer – :44.86 (2001)
2. (tie) Top Avenger – :45.20 (1981)
2. (tie) Groovy – :45.20 (1986)
4. Spanish Chestnut – :45.33 (2005)
5. Bombay Duck – :45.38 (1975)

Six Furlongs
1. Songandaprayer – 1:09.25 (2001)
2. Spanish Chestnut – 1:09.59 (2005)
3. Spend a Buck – 1:09.60 (1985)
4. (tie) Bodemeister – 1:09.80 (2012)
4. (tie) Kentucky Sherry – 1:09.80 (1968)
4. (tie) Palace Malice – 1:09.80 (2013)

One Mile
1. Spend a Buck – 1:34.80 (1985)
2. (tie) Congaree – 1:35.00 (2001)
2. (tie) Kauai King – 1:35.00 (1966)
2. (tie) Unbridled’s Song – 1:35.00 (1996)
4. Admiral’s Voyage – 1:35.20 (1962)

It’s particularly important to pay attention to the half-mile fraction of the Derby, as this can give you a very good feel of how the finish of the race will unfold. If the pace is extremely quick, as it was in 2001 and 1981, it can cause all of the horses near the pace to tire in the homestretch, setting the race up for a closer to rally from the back of the pack and secure the victory.

As examples, here are the replays of the 2013 and 1981 Kentucky Derbies, both of which featured fast early paces and extreme pace meltdowns:

2013 Kentucky Derby

1981 Kentucky Derby

Of course, if the early pace is slow, the Kentucky Derby can unfold in a much different manner, with the early leaders parading around the track with little change to the running positions. A great example is the 2002 Kentucky Derby, in which War Emblem got away with slow fractions of :23.25, :47.04, and 1:11.75 to win in gate-to-wire fashion over Proud Citizen and Perfect Drift, who tracked War Emblem’s slow pace throughout the race:

2002 Kentucky Derby

Of course, it can be challenging to predict how fast the Kentucky Derby pace will be, but this year–with plenty of horses expected to show interest in the early lead–there’s a good chance that the pace will be faster than average, and possibly even historically fast if duel for the lead should develop. So keep an eye on the fractional splits as you watch the Kentucky Derby–if the pace is quick and you’re cheering for a closer, you’ll know your horse will have every chance to win!

Follow J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman"):

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, blogger, videographer, and all-around horse racing enthusiast who was drawn to the sport by Curlin's quest to become North America's richest racehorse. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He lives in Wisconsin and also writes for the Bloodhorse.com blog Unlocking Winners.

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