Trip Handicapping the 2017 Kentucky Derby

There are a lot of different ways to handicap the Kentucky Derby. You can look at human connections, the breeding of horses, post positions, and how each contestant fared in recent prep races. However, one method worth considering is “trip handicapping.” Essentially, you predict how you think the race will be run and then, based on your predicted pace, pick the horse whom you believe will be in the best position down the stretch.

Let’s consider some history, and then discuss this year’s field with a view to trip handicapping the 2017 Run for the Roses (May 6, 2017).

How will the 2017 Kentucky Derby be Run?


Since 1977 there have been only three horses to lead every step of the Kentucky Derby, and War Emblem (2002) is the only horse to go wire-to-wire since 1988. That said, Nyquist was never worse than second last year, and both American Pharoah and California Chrome were forwardly placed during their Derby wins in 2015 and 2014.

On the flip side, only eight horses have ever gone from worst to first over the course of the race. Three of those came over 100 years ago. Mine That Bird (2009) is the only horse to circle the group in the last three decades. The closest since was Orb (2013), who made up more than 15 lengths. From 2000-2009, five winners made up deficits of at least 10 lengths.

Why it Matters

There is no single way to win the Kentucky Derby. Winners have been — and will continue to be — a mix of front-runners and late-chargers. But that doesn’t lessen the import of understanding the pace of this year’s race and how it will impact this year’s field. If the pace is going to be quick, that will make coming-from-behind easier; late-finishers will be able to race into a fast tempo. If it’s going to be slow, the front-runners will be able to pace themselves, potentially giving them enough energy to hold onto the lead.

This Year’s Set-Up

There are few, if any, obvious pace setters in this year’s field. At least half the field wants to sit just off the lead. That creates an interesting dynamic, and could benefit a jockey willing to take a risk. If a horse can take the lead at a slow pace, and have a favorable inside position for the entire running, the race could be stolen on the front end.

Identifying who that “lone speed” horse could be is tough. It might be a horse that draws an extreme inside or outside post position and has no choice but to go right to the front (because the alternative is getting pinned in behind a wall of competitors).

It appears likely Practical Joke is going to wear blinkers for the first time. That is often a sign that a horse is going to be forwardly placed. While Practical Joke hasn’t won this year, he came from a few lengths off the pace to finish second in both the Fountain of Youth and Blue Grass Stakes.

Irap likes to show speed, and won the Blue Grass in front-running style. Wood Memorial champ Irish War Cry and Always Dreaming are probably the most heralded of the those who will be near the pace. Irish War Cry has shown an ability to go wire-to-wire, though his impressive win in New York came stalking. Always Dreaming came just off the pace to win the Florida Derby. He also went wire-to-wire against a lesser field in March.

If several of the horses near the lead end up battling up front, there’s a good chance we’ll see hot fractions; people get antsy in the biggest race of the year. In that case, I’d prefer a horse coming from the middle or back of the pack. Among that group would be Girvin, Gunnevera, and McCraken. Girvin came from almost 10 lengths behind to win the Risen Star Stakes, and more than six lengths behind to capture the Louisiana Derby. Gunnevera made up at least five lengths in each of his last three wins, and rallied from nine back to win the Fountain of Youth Stakes. McCraken came from sixth place or worse in all four of his wins.

At the end of the day, if we’re going to trip handicap, we have to come to a conclusion on the likely pace. Even without a natural pace-setter, the Derby almost always sees one or more horses have an adrenaline rush and sprint out to the lead. This year should be no exception, meaning that, no matter where a horse is sitting, the winner will likely need one big kick, either on the turn or in the stretch, to run down the leaders.

The Play

None of these horses have ever run a mile-and-a-quarter before. Churchill Downs has a very long and tiring stretch. Who can not only get in position, but also retain enough gas for that long stretch run?

Always Dreaming was dominant in the Florida Derby, and appears willing to be near the pace, or just off of it. The same can be said of Irish War Cry, looking at the way he won the Wood Memorial. Both finished those prep races strongly at a mile-and-an-eighth, suggesting another quarter-of-a-mile won’t be a huge issue. Gunnevera will be further back and has the breeding to run the distance, plus a top jockey (Javier Castellano) who’s adept at race riding. Those are the three I like best, but the odds on Gunnevera are likely to be the highest, and if you believe the pace will be fair, the opportunity to get home late should be there.

Photo credit: Ken Lund [], via Wikimedia Commons.

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