Saratoga Springs, NY, April 26, 2007--With the yummy Kentucky Derby less than a fortnight away, time has come to examine a trusted racetrack axiom, if not challenge its validity flat out: So, does “pace make the race?”

Before resolving this, there’s one tenet that all handicappers must accept first; that the final time of a race is a function of early pace. That, and the notion that both early fractions and finish time are needed to measure velocity by quantifying the energy expended measured against the speed of the racing surface.

If you’re familiar with the copious copy generated by the racing press following the running of the Blue Grass Stakes two weeks ago, you know what I’m talking about. Simply stated, race times that lead to the creation of speed figures should not exist in a vacuum.
Times taken at various intervals in a race are all about relationships, one to another. If it weren’t, it would be impossible to reconcile how Grade 1 horses could race seven furlongs in 1:21 1/5 and nine furlongs in 1:51 1/5 on the same track, even on an artificial surface like Polytrack.

Back in the day, racetrackers used the pace/race term to draw handicapping 101 conclusions: Speed horses that run at a very fast pace would surely tire from their early efforts and victory would go to the late-running competition. In this context pace didn’t make the race, it made the winner.

With the advent of new artificial surfaces, pace has become a hot handicapping topic again and has given impetus to those taking the contextual view. Not even the rankest novice would have expected Dominican to run the distance in a more acceptable 1:49 1/5 off a dawdling six-furlong split of 1:17 1/5. But that was the mid-race fraction in the first ever Blue Grass run on Polytrack.

Clearly, pace did not make the Blue Grass race, it made only for the slow final clocking. After all, Dominican did come from last to win it. Last! If the eventual winner comes from last of 20 to win Kentucky Derby 133 next Saturday, you’d probably be wise to set the over-under six-furlong Derby split somewhere around 1:09 and some change.

Most Derby observers feel that the pace will be nowhere near that fast. Indeed, the talk in many racing chat rooms is that there is no true speed in this Derby. But here it may be wise to recall another racing truism: “There’s always pace in the Derby.” And with good reason.

At approximately 6:00 PM, EDT a week from Saturday, 20 wired thoroughbreds, wound tighter than they’ve ever been wound before, will step on the Churchill Downs track. At that point, the loud speaker system will begin playing what Derby jockeys refer to as: “that song.”

Two minutes later, Stephen Foster’s bluegrass hymn will end and 160,000 julep-quaffing race fans will erupt and the church that is Churchill Downs post parade will transform into the brickyard on Memorial Day. Gentlemen, start your thoroughbreds!

And the infield crescendo will begin to build so that by the time Tom Durkin tells America “they’re off!” a handful of the best three-year-olds in the country will jack-rabbit from the gate, quarter-horse under the Twin Spires for the first time and poof: a strong Derby pace is assured.

But who will those sophomores be?

If trainer Bill Currin has his way, it won’t be multiple-Grade 1 pace-setting Stormello. Currin doesn’t want him on the lead. He wants him back off the early pace. Instead of tiring on the pace as he did in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby this winter, he wants Stormello to have a target to run at. But that probably won’t happen for several good reasons.

For one, Stormello may not take to rating tactics, fighting his jockey and becoming a run-off. And Currin might be blowing pace smoke, having no intention to take back but hoping to trick his speedy rivals into rating themselves thereby allowing Stormello a relatively easy lead. This is trainer trash talk.

And given that the average winning distance of the offspring of Stormello’s sire and grandsire is 6.4 and 6.5 furlongs, respectively, Currin might not have the luxury of taking back. Besides, it’s not considered wise to take a horse out of its best game before the biggest race of its life.

If not Stormello, then who? That’s the tougher question. While I have my favorites, it would not shock to see any one of nine different horses draped with roses. Hard Spun has Stormello-type speed if he wants to use it. So does Curlin. It is unlikely either will. They would prefer to stalk the early pace from close range.

So, too, would Any Given Saturday and Nobiz Like Shobiz and Cowtown Cat, among others. The problem is five horses can’t occupy the same space. There could be even more battling for the sweet spot if they show any of the quickness they demonstrated as two-year-olds; Scat Daddy and--hold on to your julep cups--Street Sense! Of course, these two have long since learned to distribute their energy more efficiently. It’s called development. But useful to know the speed is there.

Perhaps the best way to assess pace in this Derby is to examine, through a class prism, the ability of the eventual Derby winner to run at a sustained pace throughout a two-turn race, the suitability of pedigree notwithstanding. Those best able to sustain a strongly run pace throughout a two-turn race are, in no particular order; Nobiz Like Shobiz, Hard Spun and Scat Daddy.