On the Wednesday before the Kentucky Derby every year owners, trainers, and jockeys are particularly tense. That’s because they are awaiting that afternoon’s post position draw. With 20 horses in the race there are some post positions that are favorable, others that can fit some horses better than others, and some that no one wants. No horse has ever won the Kentucky Derby because of their post position, but many horses have probably lost largely as a result of the draw. But why does the post position matter so much? Here are four factors:
Outside challenges – The couple of horses in the race mean that there are a couple of spots on the far outside of the gate that are a long, long way from the rail. Those horses have to run further than other horses to get to the finish line, and that can be an issue for them late in the race. It’s not surprising, then, that the outside posts haven’t produced a lot of winners. Just two horses have won form the 20 post, and none have won from 19. It seems like those are good reasons to ignore those outside horses each year, but at a closer look that’s just not the case. It is only in the last few years that 20 horses in the field has become the norm. Before that owners were more selective, so all of the spots were often not filled by eligible runners. Sometimes – like in 2009 and 2010 – there have been 20 horses entered, yet scratches after the entries have been taken mean that the 20 gate is empty. Since 1900 there have only been 20 starters 15 times. Since two of those starters have won, the 20th post position has actually produced winners 13.3 percent of the time it has been used. That’s well above expectations for any post position. In short, the outside post positions aren’t as bad as the public will assume they are.
Challenge of the inside post – There is one spot no owner or trainer wants – the number one. It’s by far the worst position – no other one is even close. The reasoning makes sense – every horse wants to get to the rail as quickly as possible because it’s the shortest distance around the track, so the one horse is going to be under attack from the start. When he faces that attack he can’t really do anything about it because the rail limits his movement. That means that to avoid the rush he has just two options – to go really fast to get clear on the front, or to drop back hard. Neither is likely to set the horse up well later on, and it’s almost certain that he’ll get caught in trouble. The odds for the number one horse will almost always be higher than they would be in any other post, and there is a good reason for that.
Time in the gate – It takes a lot of time to load 20 horses, so the first horse is likely to be standing there for a while before the race starts. It’s not as bad as it could be because they load two horses at a time, but there can still be a couple of minutes between the first horse and the last. There are a couple of potential issues here. First, if a horse doesn’t like being in the gate at the best of times then he likely isn’t going to be happy at all by the time the gate opens in this race if he has entered early. Second, and more significantly, if a horse has problems loading into the gate it can inconvenience a lot of horses. That can be a problem – especially if the problem loader is going into the gate later because the other horses will have to wait in their gates. A problem loader is far less of a problem if it goes in early because most of the horses are waiting outside of the gate where they can walk around and relax.
Running style – Different types of horses will do better in some positions than others. An outside post may not be a problem for a horse that is a closer because they aren’t going to be trying to get the lead anyway. A front runner could struggle more on the outside because they might not be able to get the lead. It’s important, then, to consider not just where a horse is, but what impact that will have on his ability to run his race. It’s also important to consider where other horses of similar running style are located. For example, it’s a disadvantage for a speed horse to be inside of all the other speed horses in the field because the other horses can see him more easily than he can see the others.