When Strong Early Speed Horses Can Kill You: The 2015 Kentucky Derby Revisited

Over the past few months, I have discussed weak early speed in some of my articles.  While I am a champion of backing strong early speed, there are times when you should play against it.  A strong early speed horse can either win on the lead or from just off the pace, as he applies pressure to the frontrunner in hopes it will falter.  Yet, if this strong early speed horse gets pressured into expending too much energy in the early stages of the race, it is doomed for failure. A perfect example of this was Dortmund in the 2015 Kentucky Derby.

I have summarized the final race day entrants in the table below:

  • Pgm – Program number of the horse.
  • Horse – Horse’s name.
  • Quirin – Running style and Quirin Speed Points.
  • Adj 1C / Adj 2C – Adjusted running times at the first call (half mile) and second call (three quarters of a mile) for each entrant based on lengths behind and track pars.
  • Adj Spd – My adjusted speed rating accounting for probable performance against today’s anticipated race fractions.
  • Remarks – Identifies horses as strong or weak by running style (E, E/P, P, or S).

2015 Kentucky Derby Chart

Based on the table above, there were two true early speed horses in the race: 8-Dortmund (Strong E) and 17-Mr. Z (One-Dimensional Frontrunner).  Looking down the Adj 2C column, we see that the lowest adjusted projected second call time is for 10-Firing Line at 70.3 seconds and 18-American Pharoah was second-lowest at 71.0 seconds.

Firing Line is what I call my “Critical Pace Horse” in this race, meaning that with the lowest adjusted projected second call time, he will likely be the one to pressure the early speed horses and cause them to expended extra energy early.  Any pressure that causes Dortmund to run a half-mile time in less than 48.1 seconds and a six-furlong time in less than 72.2 seconds will impact his chances to win.

The two early speed horses in this race show no advantage.

Mr. Z is a fifth of a second slower than Firing Line and, since he is a One-Dimensional Frontrunner, he has no shot at winning given the expected pace.  The strong early speed horse, Dortmund, is over a full second off of the lowest adjusted first and second call times, forcing him to move faster than he has ever had to before.  It is interesting to note that this is where having solid track-to-track comparison data comes in handy.  Dortmund ran his previous three races at Santa Anita and showed six furlong times of 70.2 seconds, 71.1 seconds and 70.4 seconds. Yet, the difference in par times between Santa Anita Park and Churchill Downs is nearly two full seconds (the former being faster).

Having identified the early speed (“E” horses) as either weak or having no pace advantage, the horses noted as Strong E/P (strong early speed types and/or horses that will rate off the pace), Strong P horses (horses that pressure/press the pace) and Strong Stalkers (sustained pace/closers) are under consideration.

This leaves Carpe Diem, Materiality, Danzig Moon, Firing Line, Frosted, American Pharoah and Upstart.  Of these remaining seven, both Upstart and Materiality score very low on my adjusted speed scale and can be tossed.  Given the strength of the Strong E/P runners, Danzig Moon would have too much ground left to make up against horses that still have some run in them, so he too is also eliminated.  This left the contenders as Carpe Diem, Firing Line, Frosted and American Pharoah.

2015 Kentucky Derby Results

The race set up pretty much as predicted.  Dortmund got out to the early lead followed by Firing Line and American Pharoah. He hit the half-mile in :47.1 and ran three quarters of a mile in 1:11.1 — both times much faster than his comfortable pace.  This set him up to run out of gas late, as American Pharoah prevailed over Firing Line.

Finding a strong early speed horse doesn’t always correlate to finding a winner.  Understanding how to beat strong early speed horses can lead to profitable plays, especially in a race as big as the Kentucky Derby.