Does post position matter in the Kentucky Derby? | Photo by Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs
Does post position really matter in the Kentucky Derby? | Photos by Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs

The annual hand-wringing over post positions will hit a fretful peak this evening when pills are pulled for Kentucky Derby 141.

Oh the furrowed brows and kneaded rosaries. Oh the existential angst.

Oh gimme a break.

The post position draw has assumed an aura of Shakespearean drama but is, in fact, much ado about nothing. Contrary to popular mythology, the best horse – or a very good horse that was very good that day – almost always wins the Kentucky Derby. His place in the starting gate is irrelevant.

To wit, the gate-related facts regarding all 15 Derbys since 2000:

  • Wins from posts 1-5 – four
  • From posts 6-10 – four
  • From posts 11-15 – three
  • From posts 16-20 – four

There couldn’t be a more even distribution – or a more quantifiable refutation of the pill pull’s alleged importance.

Of those who believe in the significance of post positions, ask a simple question: When has the draw had an inarguable impact on the Derby’s outcome?

You will be instantly regaled with tales of Lookin At Lucky’s mugging from the 1 hole in 2010. Other than that?

Bueller? Bueller?

There’s no statistical bias regarding post position for runners-up, either:

  • Second-place finishes from posts 1-5 – five
  • From posts 6-10 – two
  • From posts 11-15 – four
  • From posts 16-20 – four

If post positions were truly important, there would be a stronger correlation between starting gate and finish position. But there isn’t. I suspect you could slog through another 15 (or 50) years of results charts and still find no connection.

Post position cultists presume they can predict the unpredictable; that they can look at a diagram of 20 gates and accurately forecast where and when trouble will occur, or who will suffer ruinous ground loss.

They cannot. The predictions are unreliable.

In 2012, I’ll Have Another drew the 19 hole, and oh dear diary, what a gruesome post! No horse had ever won from the 19, and worse still, I’ll Have Another was a speed horse. The outside post projected to park him tragically wide heading into the first turn.

I'll Have Another won the Derby in 2012, despite drawing post 19.
I’ll Have Another won the Derby in 2012, despite drawing post 19.

“It’s less than ideal,” trainer Doug O’Neill deadpanned.

Be careful what you don’t wish for. The post probably saved I’ll Have Another from getting sucked into the seething early fractions cut by Bodemeister and Trinniberg.

Instead, I’ll Have Another had little choice but to let the speedsters blow by. He then angled toward the rail, saving ground and energy both, and rallied in the final ¼-mile to catch Bodemeister in the shadow of the wire.

A less-than-ideal post resulted in an ideal trip – an outcome no one envisioned when the pills were pulled.

Horse races are a thrillingly condensed illustration of the butterfly effect. Every step, or misstep, a horse takes has a subtle effect on the animals around him. Every decision each jockey makes has an impact too. Even in small fields, races unfold in unpredictable ways.

If our freeways were as tumultuous as the start of a horse race – with all the bumping, crowding and frenetic lane-changing – we’d all take the bus to work as a means of self-preservation. There is no way to predict where calamity will strike once the gates open. A horse in stall 9 is as apt to get pinched back as a horse in stall 2.

Ask Medaglia d’Oro. The co-second choice in 2002 stumbled out of the 9 hole and was promptly bumped by Essence of Dubai leaving Post 8. It took him out of his customary pace-pressing style and likely cost him a top-three placing. He did well to get up for fourth.

With up to 20 horses entered, the Kentucky Derby is the most capricious race of all. Yet every year the sages await the pill pull and think that now, at last, they can anticipate the way the race will be run. It’s usually a delusion.

A fast pace was predicted last year. We watched the crawling of banana slugs instead. A modest pace was forecast in 2013. We got the Indianapolis 500 instead, with a horse named Palace Malice playing the jet-fueled pace car, thanks to new blinkers that compelled him to blast off like a dragster.

Nobody saw that coming – not the trainer, not the jockey and certainly not the handicappers who wagered that a moderate pace would keep deep closers from dominating the superfecta. What actually happened was the complete opposite. The horses that were 17th, 15th and 18th with only a ½ mile left finished first, second and third.

There are no absolutes in horse racing. Sometimes post position does matter, but that’s usually due to bad luck not attributable to the location of the starting gate. However, there is a specific type of horse for whom it does matter – a horse that insists on being near the early lead but draws a far outside post. The result: an insurmountably wide trip.

(Geometry digression: The only horse that runs exactly 1 ¼ miles is he who runs next to the rail from start to finish. All others are subject to Pythagorean laws regarding the circumference of ovals. The farther a horse is from the rail, the farther he must run to reach the finish line – a vastly important detail that only Calvin Borel seems to fully comprehend.)

Pythagoras doomed Brother Derek all to hell in 2006. The 8-1 third choice, Brother Derek drew Post 18. He was six wide entering the first turn and, according to the chart notes, “fanned nine abreast when making a run into the upper stretch, but came up empty.”

No wonder. Brother Derek’s Derby trip measured closer to 1 3/8 miles than 1 ¼. His fourth-place finish is one of more remarkable runs in modern Derby history. He should’ve finished 14th.

Big Brown won big, despite drawing post 20.
Big Brown won big, despite drawing post 20.

Two years later, Big Brown drew Post 20. I threw him out. He won by nearly 5 lengths, taunting geometry teachers every step of the way.

I tossed I’ll Have Another for the same reason, ignoring the advice of several sharp handicappers who extolled the chestnut colt’s consistent brilliance on fast tracks.

Here is the lesson learned: Class trumps post position every time.

“Class” is a term horsemen use to describe a blend of superior physical and mental talent. A fast, tractable, competitive horse that is not discouraged by adversity has class.

Bet on class, not post position. That includes far inside post positions, the ones trainers and owners fear most. Yes, favored Lookin At Lucky lost all hope for victory when he was pinballed at the start five years ago, but it’s a hamstring-snapping stretch to automatically assume he would have beaten Super Saver with a different draw.

Super Saver, by the way, drew the 4 hole that year. Union Rags drew the same post in 2012, but got hip-checked at the break and ran seventh. He was foiled by bad luck, not a bad post.

There’s no anticipating such misfortune. Don’t even try.

Granted, the margin for error is smaller with an inside post because the entire field is slanting toward the rail at the break. And, yes, if every trainer had his druthers, he’d probably pick a post between 7 and 10.

But guess which post yielded the most winners from 2000-14? The 5, which launched War Emblem, Funny Cide and California Chrome. Guess what those horses had that Lookin At Lucky and Union Rags didn’t? A light-footed burst of tactical speed that spurred them quickly from the gate and into the clear.

Bet horses, not gate stalls. Focus on attributes like class, quickness and tractability. They can conquer bad luck. Fate dealt Risen Star a horrendous trip in 1988 but he still managed to run third, then won the Preakness and Belmont thereafter.

I’ve focused on the circumstances of Derby winners because it’s impossible to cash an exotics ticket without the king of roses. But note that post position has strongly impacted the lower rungs of exotic bets.

The correlation between post and finish is potent for those that run third and fourth. Saving ground seems to be the difference between horses that crash the superfecta and those that crash and burn your hopes of cashing big. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Third- and fourth-place finishes from posts 1-5 – 15
  • From posts 6-10 – seven
  • From posts 11-15 – five
  • From posts 16-20 – three

Prudence still requires focusing your bets on horses with sufficient speed and/or the right running style. But when deciding which horses to use on the bottom of your superfecta, favor those with a single-digit post.

Or not.

For the final horse on the bottom of my superfectas last year, I had to choose between Samraat and Wicked Strong. Because Samraat drew the 6 hole and Wicked Strong the 19, I went with Samraat.

Wicked Strong nosed him out for fourth. It cost me $35,000.

Hindsight or no, I should have gone with Wicked Strong, a better, faster horse that had defeated Samraat by 3 ½ lengths in the Wood Memorial four weeks prior.

So bet horses, not post positions, and hope luck breaks your way.

Mark Coomes covered sports and a dilettantish mix of other topics great and small in 20 years at The Courier-Journal, The (Monroe, La.) News-Star, USA Today, Florida Today and The Cats' Pause.


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