Everything You Need to Know About the Pace of the Kentucky Derby

Everything You Need to Know About the Pace of the Kentucky Derby

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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, which allowed Orb and Pleasant Colony to rally from far behind and win.

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. The 2015 Kentucky Derby was very similar, with American Pharoah, Firing Line, and Dortmund occupying the top three positions at every call of the race.

2002 Kentucky Derby

2015 Kentucky Derby

Of course, it can be challenging to predict how fast the Kentucky Derby pace will be, and this year–with not too many front-running horses targeting the Derby–it’s possible that the pace could be quite slow. So keep an eye on the fractional splits as you watch the Kentucky Derby–if the pace is slow and you’re cheering for a front-runner, you’ll know your horse will have every chance to win!

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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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Eric Rickard

The big surprise last year was the fold of Carpe Diem. He had no excuse. Compare him to some of this years “good horses/wise guy horses. When a favorite has beat basically no one , bet against in the Derby. Bet the battle tested against the best. That is the ticket regardless of pace. Spend A Buck should have been a video race.