How Will the Track Condition Affect the Kentucky Derby?

With it now seeming likely that the 2017 Kentucky Derby will be contested over an “off” track, the logical question becomes: How will the track condition affect the outcome of the race?

As it pertains to individual horses, that question may be unresolved until two minutes and a few seconds after the gate springs open, but there is enough history to at least make some educated guesses as to how the muck could affect the running of the race itself.

Since 1900, there have been 117 editions of the Run for the Roses. Eighty-five of those have been contested on a “fast” track, with the remaining 32 run over “off” tracks of varying degrees, including 10 designated as “slow” or “heavy”, labels that are rarely used anymore.

But the interesting thing is how those track condition influence the running of the race and the tactics of the winner.


As the above chart shows, on tracks labeled “fast”, the ideal position is just behind the top flight, about 4-5 lengths behind the leader. This also holds true for “sloppy” tracks, although the early energy requirements are much greater.

Given that sloppy conditions are probable for the 143rd Kentucky Derby, let’s take a closer look at the seven previous Derbies run over the slop:

  • Four were won by horses in the top two, or within three lengths of the lead, after the initial half-mile.
  • Of the three horses that did not qualify above, two — Mine That Bird and Orb — came from more than 15 lengths back at the first call.
  • Two featured historically quick early speed rations (ESRs). In fact, the median opening half-mile on “sloppy” tracks is 0.3 seconds faster than the median opening half-mile on tracks labeled “fast”.
  • Three were won by the post-time favorite.
  • Don’t be fooled by a slow final time. When the Churchill Downs surface is anything but fast, the Derby time is typically 2:04 or slower.

Speed Rations Explained

Derek Simon
Derek Simon is the Senior Editor and Handicapper at US Racing.