In years past riding the rail in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs was a harrowing experience for the horse that draws Post Position Number one.
But not this year, thanks to a new, 20-horse starting gate that will make its debut next week.
“The rail horse won’t be crunched right down on the inside,” said Jamie Richardson, track superintendent at Churchill Downs. “Depending on how they set it, he could very easily be in the 2 to 3 path.”
Drawing the dreaded inside post has been such a disadvantage that FERDINAND in 1986 is the only horse in the last 56 years of the Derby to Win from post Number 1.
The new gate will not eliminate traffic to the inside, but it will create more room to operate.
“Normally where the gate sits, the tires on the starting gate are where the 1 path is,” Richardson said. “If the race broke somewhere straight on the stretch where you’re right up against the inside rail, the 1 horse would break in the 2 or 3 path. That will be the case now for the Derby. He’ll have room to the inside.”
At 65 feet, the new gate takes up less space than the two old gates put together, because there are not tires creating a big gap that was about 7-8 feet – or three stalls wide – between posts 14 and 15.
“It’s going to be a huge improvement,” said Richardson, who was promoted to track superintendent in 2015 after three years as an assistant. “The 1 horse is going to have more room to the inside, and the 20 horse is going to have more room to the outside.”
Richardson said that the new gate even has a little more room in each stall. “It’s like 2½ more inches between the pontoons than the old United starting gate.”
The 20-stall barrier made by Steriline Racing in Australia was shipped in sections across the Pacific Ocean this spring.
It was then assembled at Churchill Downs under the supervision of a Steriline representative. The company makes gates of all sizes for racetracks around the world.
Its biggest has 25 stalls – with one to spare – for the Melbourne Cup every November at Flemington.
“We believe that (the new) gate will deliver a clean start for all horses and enhance safety for horses and riders in the Kentucky Derby,” racing director Mike Ziegler said when Churchill Downs announced the purchase of the new gate.
Since it is intended for use only once a year, the new gate will normally sit idle in a garage near the three-eighths pole at Churchill Downs. But on the morning of September 5th it will be in full view, parked in the training chute near the five-eighths pole.
“It’ll be there all day,” Richardson said. “We’ll pull it out just a sixteenth of a mile up to the Derby start. Then after the Derby break it’ll get pulled right back down to the chute.”
This year will mark the first time since 1997 that a single gate will be used for the Derby. In the 90 KD‘s since the walk-up start was abandoned in 1930, 54 have required the auxiliary gate.