So much of my focus on the Derby Trail is centered around speed. If you can answer the question "are they fast enough?" with an affirmative nod than you've come a long way in determining the likely winner.
Speed is about more than just numbers though. In determining a horses capability for speed one must also consider the position they put themselves in races. The Derby is run on traditional dirt and traditional dirt has always favored speed, not high Beyer figures, but early speed.
You'll hear me mention it over and over. I want horses with tactical speed not plodders. What I mean by tactical speed is horses who have enough speed to be in a contending position when the real running starts. A lot of talented horses routinely leave themselves too much to do. In the preps you get races where the pace falls apart or you have small fields that are easy to maneuver through and these late closers don't get punished. In the Derby they do.
I know certain exceptions are likely springing to mind and you're recalling the Derby stretch runs of Street Sense, Giacomo or Grindstone. These horses are actually not exceptions, they are in fact the reason why you should never back a plodder. I'll get back to this after defining the term plodder a little better.
I'm not referring to horses who are at the back of the pack in the first quarter mile I'm referring to the horses who are still many lengths back when they enter the stretch. It's not that easy to make up significant ground in the stretch and a horse needs to show that they have enough speed to get in a place they can win from. One way you can attempt to quantify this factor is to look at a horses position in the second last call in the past performances. Horses who failed to be in the top two places in that second last call in either of their last two prep races have a terrible 65-0-3-4 record in the Derby since 1996. 65 horses and no winners, in fact even the 7 horses who managed to run in the money were well beaten, they just clunked up and managed to beat everyone else without threatening the winner.
The stats are no kinder if you look at horses who won a two turn prep race coming from well back. Derby entrants who won a two turn prep race without being first or second at the 1/8th pole are 31-0-2-4.
The reason why late runners have such a hard time in the Derby is because there are late runners in the race who have already proven that they have tactical speed. Street Sense, Giacomo, Fusaichi Pegasus, Monarchos and all the other Derby winners who won from off the pace had demonstrated in a prep race that they had the speed to get in contention early. What that means is that even if they're asked to come from well out of it they're getting first run on the real plodders like Jazil, Impeachment, Invisible Ink and Tiago. Those horses can, and did, run well in the Derby but their lack of speed meant that the winners had already won the race by the time they got going.
Plodders don't win a race like the Derby specifically because of the presence of speedier closers. Any pace scenario that would favor such a late runner also favors closers with better tactical speed. They get by in the preps because the fields are lower quality. When the pace collapses it's easier to swallow up the competition. They attract fans as well because big late moves are eye catching and we think that with added distance their late kicks will have more venom. The opposite is true, it's easier to close in shorter races.
When evaluating speed don't just look at the figures. Look for those horses who get themselves in positions that they can consistently win from. Tactical speed is every bit as important as a nice triple digit Beyer.