The Kentucky Derby is ten days away. For the field of twenty 3-year-old Thoroughbreds competing, it is one of the most important moments of their lives and racing luck can make or break their Derby run literally right from the start.
It’s called the luck of the draw for a reason.
The Kentucky Derby has used a starting gate since 1930; and traditionally two of them, actually. One held 14 horses and the other, called the auxiliary gate, was attached to the outside of the main gate to allow for six more horses.
That changed in 2020 when Churchill Downs secured a single gate that holds all 20 horses.
Interestingly, that race was Won by AUNTHENTIC who drew the post farthest to the outside, Post-Position 15. He initially drew post 18 but moved in three spots after three horses were scratched, or withdrawn, from the race.
Common sense would seem to dictate that the inside posts are favorable since racing near rail is the shortest way around a racetrack.
While (seemingly) true in races with fields of 10 horses or fewer, but in the Kentucky Derby there are up to 20 racehorses bolting out of the gate and rushing to secure position before the field heads into the first turn.
That means a lot of bumping and jostling as the field compresses to the inside of the racetrack. Which means the horses already on the inside are going to get the worst of it, which could discourage them or negatively affect their positioning.
Horses on the outside are usually subject to less bumping, but if they don’t make it across the track before the first turn they can be left racing very wide.
In the Kentucky Derby the turns account more than 40% of the 1 ¼-mile race. That said, a horse six paths off the rail on both turns will run 150 feet farther than a horse on the rail, making their race that much more challenging.
It’s important to find a balance between racing far enough inside to save ground and far enough outside that a horse can easily maneuver to be in the clear when the real running starts: the homestretch.
So what is the ideal Post Position? Conventional wisdom says that somewhere in the middle of the gate, positions 5-15, is best.
In recent years, though, there seems to be a trend toward outside posts having more success, due in part to the crowded fields of the last couple of decades.
Since and including 2000, 12 of the 23 Kentucky Derby Winners have broken from gate 13 or higher.
From the 70 races that used a gate before 2000, just 10 Winners broke from gate 13 or higher.
Some of the recent Winners (NYQUIST, AMERICAN PHAROAH, BIG BROWN) were solid favorites who might have Won from an inside gate regardless.
But some weren’t the betting favorites – and that definitely includes 80-1 Winner RICH STRIKE, who drew into the 2022 Derby the day before the race and became the second Winner (following 2008 favorite BIG BROWN) to Win from Post-Position 20.
Additional proof of this trend toward outside posts comes when you look at inside posts’ success (or lack thereof).
No horse has Won the Kentucky Derby from gate 1 since FERDINAND in 1986. The only horse who has Won from post 1, 2, or 3 since then is REAL QUIET, the 1998 Derby Winner who broke from post 3 and came up a mere nose shy of Winning the Triple Crown.
Before 1987, 19 of 58 horses that left gates 1, 2 and 3 have Won, giving those posts a 10.9% Win rate. Since 1987, the Win rate for the first three posts is just 0.95% (1-for-105).
Other interesting Post-Position stats include a 10.8% Win rate for gate 5, which was the Post Position of both 2017 Winner ALWAYS DREAMING and 2014 Winner CALIFORNIA CHROME.
Gate 10 has also produced a relative high rate of Winners at 10.5%, and horses finishing in the money- a remarkable 29.1%, including 3rd-place 2022 finisher ZANDON. The last Derby Victor to come from the 10 hole was GIACOMO, who (not for nothing) was also that last gray horse to Win the Derby.
Conspicuously, no horse has ever Won from Post-Position 17 and the last time gate 17 produced a horse that even finished in the top five was 2005.
The big Kentucky Derby favorite in the 2020 September Run For The Roses, TIZ THE LAW, initially drew post 17. His chances, historically speaking, improved when other defections in the race moved him inside to post 14.
But that spot, and its 2.9% success rate, didn’t make much of a difference after AUTHENTIC got the early jump and settled on a loose and comfortable lead near the rail. TIZ THE LAW chased from a wider stalking position and finished 2nd.