The ‘Classic’ Distance and Challenge of Excelling at 1 ¼ Miles on Dirt

The horses race into the stretch in the 2016 Kentucky Derby, which was won by Nyquist. (Eclipse Sportswire)

In the buildup to the Kentucky Derby each spring, one of the most important questions each 3-year-old must answer is whether they can stretch out to 1 ¼ miles and thrive at what is considered to be the “classic” distance.

This year, for the first time in recent history, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve favorite, Tiz the Law, has already proved capable of a dominant effort at 1 ¼ miles before the field even enters the Derby starting gate. That is, of course, because the COVID-19 pandemic led to the postponement of the 2020 Kentucky Derby from the first Saturday in May until Sept. 5.

In the interim, Tiz the Law overwhelmed the competition in the 1 ¼-mile Runhappy Travers Stakes Aug. 8 at Saratoga. Tiz the Law stalked a moderate pace from third through a half-mile in :48.36, according to the Equibase chart, and covered the final quarter-mile in an eye-catching 24.53 seconds to win the Travers by 5 ½ lengths.

That’s a terrific final quarter-mile from Tiz the Law for a race at that distance, and the final time was a strong 2:00.95, which entering last weekend’s races was the second-fastest for a 1 ¼-mile dirt race in North America in 2020, regardless of age.

Top 10 Times for 1 1/4-Mile Races on Dirt in 2020 (through  Aug. 16)

courtesy of Equibase Co.
Track Race Date Race # Winning Time Race Type Race Name Grade Winning Horse
BEL 7/4/20 11 1:59.51 STK Suburban Stakes 2 Tacitus
SAR 8/8/20 11 2:00.95 STK Runhappy Travers Stakes 1 Tiz the Law 
DMR 8/22/20 10 2:01.24 STK TVG Pacific Classic Stakes 1 Maximum Security 
SA 6/6/20 10 2:01.69 STK Hollywood Gold Cup Stakes 1 Improbable 
SA 3/7/20 10 2:02.32 STK Santa Anita Handicap 1 Combatant
SAR 8/15/20 9 2:03.04 STK Alabama Stakes 1 Swiss Skydiver
SA 2/29/20 2 2:03.37 STR Swamp Souffle
LRL 3/14/20 4 2:04.36 STR Jefazo
IND 7/21/20 6 2:04.58 AOC Wild About You
GP 5/17/20 8 2:05.27 AOC Musical Heart

Italics: Pacific Classic result subsequently added to chart.

Last weekend, another key 1 ¼-mile race was held at Del Mar, where 2019 champion 3-year-old male Maximum Security won the TVG Pacific Classic Stakes by three lengths as the 2-5 favorite in 2:01.24.

Like Tiz the Law, Maximum Security finished well with a final quarter-mile in 24.74 seconds in a time that would have been good enough to place him third in the table above. We’ll revisit this topic in October before the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic with an updated 1 ¼-mile list, but for now it’s no surprise that Maximum Security and Tiz the Law hold down the top two spots in the latest Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic rankings.

On the other hand, Tacitus (with the fastest time above) might not be getting the respect he deserves. He’s frequently come up short in marquee races, but based on his final quarter-mile in 24.53 to win the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes and his winning time he probably deserves to be higher than eighth.

Shifting the focus back to the Kentucky Derby, it’s obvious why Tiz the Law is viewed as the overwhelming favorite to win the 2020 run for the roses.

Tiz the Law is 4-for-4 this year and 6-for-7 lifetime with his lone defeat coming in his only start on an “off” track when he was beaten by three-quarters of a length in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs.

This year, Tiz the Law opened his 3-year-old campaign with a three-length win in the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull Stakes in February before rattling off Grade 1 wins in the 1 1/8-mile Curlin Florida Derby, 1 1/8-mile Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (shortened from 1 ½ miles this year due to the pandemic), and 1 ¼-mile Travers. Remarkably, the three lengths in the Holy Bull was his smallest margin of victory all year.

Keeler Johnson provided a nice look at how all of the 2020 Kentucky Derby contenders have finished in prep races – looking specifically at their final three-eighths of a mile in 1 1/8-mile races – and not surprisingly Tiz the Law graded out very well. But it is his experience and success at 1 ¼ miles that make him an entirely different type of Kentucky Derby favorite than we’ve seen in year’s past.

Tiz the Law’s speed figures for the Travers – 115 Equibase Speed Figure, 109 Beyer Speed Figure, 115 BrisNet speed rating, 126 TimeForm US speed rating, 3 on Ragozin sheets, the last four all career highs – make the Constitution colt look like a clear standout in the 2020 Kentucky Derby and his odds almost certainly will reflect that.

Travers runner-up Caracaro also has finished quite well in his two most-recent races, completing his final three-eighths of a mile in :37.20 when second in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes and his final quarter-mile in :25.16 in the Travers. Likewise, Travers third-place finisher Max Player covered his last quarter in :25.19 after finishing his final three-eighths in :36.74 when third in the Belmont Stakes.

Both Caracaro and Max Player have considerable ground to make up on Tiz the Law, but their experience at 1 ¼ miles could prove invaluable on Kentucky Derby day.

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