Andrew Beyer, whose speed figures have turned thoroughbred handicapping into a numbers game over the past two decades, has said publicly that pace is probably the least important factor to consider when sizing up a race.

But Mr. Beyer (whose Beyer Speed Figures have been published in the Daily Racing Form since 1991) might have to change his tune after an expected pace battle in Saturday's 132nd Kentucky Derby leaves several “fig monsters” gasping for air at the finish.

Wire-to-wire winners of the Derby are rare (War Emblem in 2002 was the last), and the handful of colts who have managed to lead every step of the mile and one-quarter have benefitted from slow fractions and/or having no competition up front.

  Saturday, however, will see the first Derby in years where ALL of the 3-year-olds who figure to dominate the betting have run their best races on or near the early lead. This should set up one of three scenarios:

  (1) One of the favorites will simply be too good for the field and, whatever the fractions, he will overcome the brutal pace and win anyway;

(2) Several trainers with front-runners will try to ease their horses back off the early lead and take advantage of the quick fractions, leaving one or two up front to battle through the first mile or so; or

(3) The expected donnybrook on the lead materializes, and a colt who couldn’t beat the favorites one-on-one if you loaded him in the back of the trailer and pulled him around the racetrack will swoop by everybody (ala Giacomo in 2005) and score the upset.

If the first scenario holds true, California star Brother Derek will probably win the Derby. He was impressive in taking the Santa Anita Derby by more than three lengths in his last start, he has a veteran trainer (Dan Hendricks) and one of the world’s leading riders (Alex Solis), and he has yet to lose in his career.  On the down side, Hendricks has never had a serious Derby contender before, Brother Derek’s last workout wasn’t up to his usual standards, and he has to prove that he can (a) handle the pressure or (b) be rated off the hot pace while trying a mile and a quarter for the first time.

Florida Derby winner Barbaro and Arkansas Derby hero Lawyer Ron also come into Saturday’s race with perfect records, and, although they are two of the most interesting horses in the field, they also have major question marks in addition to the fact that they are both likely pace casualties if they linger near the early lead for long. 

Barbaro is trained by former Olympic equestrian star Michael Matz, who, although he has experienced the pressure cooker of Olympic jumping and eventing, has never seen anything like the zoo he and his horse will face on Derby Day. Matz will send Barbaro into the Derby off a five-week layoff, and the colt has started just once in the last 13 weeks. Unless Matz is some kind of evil genius who has come up with a new training style that will revolutionize thoroughbred racing, those factors — coupled with the fact that Barbaro probably doesn’t want to pass horses — could make him the Derby underlay.

Brother Ron, meanwhile, is trained by veteran Midwestern conditioner Bob Holthus, and, although the colt dominated his competition in Arkansas (where Smarty Jones prepped for his Triple Crown campaign two years ago), he is something of a question mark at Saturday’s distance and against Saturday’s company. His time in the Arkansas Derby (his first race beyond a mile and one-sixteenth) was mediocre, and his breeding suggests another eighth of a mile could be more than he wants.

Even if the trainers of two of these three speedsters decide to take their horses back off the Kamikaze fractions, two other colts — Blue Grass Stakes winner Sinister Minister and the Bob Baffert-trained Keyed Entry — figure to ensure a quick pace. 

Sinister Minister grabbed an easy lead and cruised to a 13-length victory in the Blue Grass and ran a Beyer Speed Figure (116) that is four lengths better than any other colt in the Derby field.  Saturday, though, he should find out what happens when speed figures and pace collide.

Under scenario No. 2, the trainers of one or two of the top Derby hopefuls could decide that their colts are versatile enough to be rated off the lead.  If one of them is right, he probably has the Derby winner, but the first Saturday in May is a tough time to experiment, and, although Smarty Jones changed his running style a bit to beat a mediocre field in 2004, Derby winners rarely change their spots in the big race.

  With that in mind, anyone searching for a little more of a price will probably anticipate scneario No. 3 and look for a stretch runner.  And, in this year’s Derby, four colts seem to be strong candidates to blow past the tiring speedsters in the final eighth of a mile.

  Sweetnorthernsaint is, like Barbaro, Brother Derek and Lawyer Ron, a colt trained by a guy who’s never won a Derby, and he took the road less traveled to get to Churchill Downs, romping by more than nine lengths in a so-so field in the Illinois Derby in his last start.  But War Emblem won the Derby after running in Illinois, and this colt will have wily veteran Kent Desormeaux aboard and appears to have the class and, yes, the numbers to be a contender.

  Bob and John, trained by Derby specialist Bob Baffert, comes into Saturday’s race off a so-so victory in the Wood Memorial and will probably need the race of his life this weekend, but he has the running style to fit the expected pace scenario, the breeding to handle the 10 furlongs and top connections in Baffert and (former Remington Park) jockey Garrett Gomez.

  A. P. Warrior is an intriguing price play off his third-place finish behind Brother Derek in the Santa Anita Derby.  His trainer, John Shirreffs, is one of American racing’s best-kept secrets, his sire (A. P. Indy) is one of the world’s best producers of distance and class, he has the jockey (Corey Nakatani) and the right running style to take advantage of quick fractions, and his best races seem to be in front of him.

  Point Determined, the second contender from the Baffert barn, will try to make amends for his sire, Point Given, who raced too close to quick fractions and finished sixth in the 2001 Derby but came back to win the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.  Second in the Santa Anita Derby, Point Determined is a seasoned veteran who will have one of the nation’s top young riders (Rafael Bejarano) aboard.

  On paper, this Derby has everything — talented favorites, intriguing new trainers and jockeys, some old familiar faces and, as usual, a ton of question marks.  The Derby captures the attention of even casual racegoers because it challenges young horses to do something they’ve never done before (race a mile and a quarter) earlier in the year than they should be asked to do it. 

  And then, there is the finality of the race.  These 3-year-olds will get just one chance to win the Derby.  Giacomo did it last year and then faded into oblivion, and most of the recent Derby winners have gone on to less-than-spectacular careers afterward.  This field appears to be one of the deepest in years, however, and, no matter who wins, somebody’s going to get a price.

  MY DERBY SELECTIONS: A. P. Warrior, Sweetsouthernsaint, Brother Derek, Point Determined.

          

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