Kentucky Derby Post Positions by the Numbers

Racing
Saturday marks the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports, but for the owners, trainers and jockeys of Kentucky Derby horses, the post position draw can be the most stressful few minutes of the year. The draw is when Derby entrants are assigned a position in the starting gate and though the assignments are random, the effects on a horse’s chances at Derby glory seem to be far from haphazard.

A starting gate has been used for the Kentucky Derby each year since 1930. With the large fields that the Kentucky Derby attracts, Churchill Downs uses both its regular 14-horse starting gate plus a six-horse “auxiliary” starting gate that is attached to the outside of the main gate. Position in the gate is paramount to getting a good trip and securing a favorable running position as the herd thunders into the first turn. Far inside or far outside posts can be disastrous for a horse’s chances.

The rail is the shortest way around any racetrack, so inside post positions may at first glance seem beneficial. However, when the gates spring open and 15 or more young racehorses aim for the inside rail, the horses who are already there can get bumped or squeezed out of position, some shuffled far back into the pack. The jostling and bumping can also discourage some horses from running their best race.

Conversely, if the horses on the far outside don’t get to the inside of the track before the first turn they get stuck wide out into the track, causing them to travel farther and expend more energy than those to the inside of them. The turns account for 40 percent of the distance of the Kentucky Derby, so if a horse is hung wide on one or, worse yet, both turns, it can have a big outcome on the horse’s ability to finish strongly in the homestretch. Finding a good running position is a delicate balance to strike and the ability to do so hinges in large part on post position.

A horse’s connections (trainer, owner and jockey) generally hope for a draw somewhere in the No. 5 to 15 range. Some trainers prefer the far outside of the main gate or the far inside of the auxiliary gate (gates 14 or 15) due to the extra space those positions afford.

American Pharoah wins the 2015 Kentucky Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

American Pharoah is evidence of the recent trend in winning post positions: away from the inside and toward the outside of the gate. Though 19 horses won from posts No. 1, 2 or 3 between 1930 and 1987, there has been only one winner from those three posts since. That one winner was Real Quiet (gate No. 3), who went on to fall just a nose short of Triple Crown glory.

Ferdinand was the last horse to win from the far inside post (in 1986), and you have to go back to Triple Crown winner Affirmed in 1978 to find a Derby winner that broke from gate No. 2. Overall, posts 1 through 4 have a 7.3 percent win rate but Super Saver (2010) is the only winner in the last 17 runnings.

The outside of the gate, meanwhile, has had great success in recent years. The auxiliary gate (15-20) has had eight of the last 17 winners, including the aforementioned American Pharoah, I’ll Have Another (post 19, 2012), Animal Kingdom (post 16, 2011) and Big Brown (post 20, 2008).

When you take into consideration the number of horses that have broken from gates 15 through 20 in that timeframe, they have an 8-for-83 record, or 9.6 percent wins. The rest of the post positions, meanwhile, have just a 9-for-238 record, or 3.8 percent. Of course, part of that is the fact that the favorites sometimes draw outside (American Pharoah, Big Brown). But it is also possible, or even probable, that as average field size has increased over the last few decades (from 12.6 in the 1960s to 19.2 over the last six years), the favorability of outside posts has also increased since those horses avoid the crowding and bumping heading into the first turn.

Interestingly, despite the recent success of outside posts, no horse has ever won from post No. 17. It is the only winless post. Gate 18 hasn’t had a win since 1982, gate 9 since 1972, gate 12 since 1971 and gate 14 is winless since 1961. Check out the table below for more stats on Kentucky Derby post positions.

Post Position

2016 Contender

Most Recent Winner

Wins/Starts

Win Percent

Wins/Starts Since 1999

Win Percent Since 1999

Last Year’s Result

1

Trojan Nation

Ferdinand (1986)

8/86

9.3%

0/17

0%

Ocho Ocho Ocho, 14th place

2

Suddenbreakingnews

Affirmed (1978)

7/86

8.1%

0/17

0%

Carpe Diem, 10th place

3

Creator

Real Quiet (1998)

5/86

5.8%

0/17

0%

Materiality, 6th place

4

Mo Tom

Super Saver (2010)

5/86

5.8%

1/17

5.9%

Tencendur, 17th place

5

Gun Runner

California Chrome (2014)

9/86

10.5%

3/17

17.6%

Danzig Moon, 5th place

6

My Man Sam

Sea Hero (1993)

2/86

2.3%

0/17

0%

Mubtaahij, 8th place

7

Oscar Nominated

Street Sense (2007)

6/85

7.1%

1/17

5.9%

Dortmund, 3rd place

8

Lani

Mine that Bird (2009)

8/85

9.4%

2/17

11.7%

Bolo, 12th place

9

Destin

Riva Ridge (1972)

4/82

4.9%

0/17

0%

Firing Line, 2nd place

10

Whitmore

Giacomo (2005)

9/79

11.4%

1/17

5.9%

Itsaknockout, 9th place

11

Exaggerator

Winning Colors (1988)

2/75

2.7%

0/17

0%

Keen Ice, 7th place

12

Tom’s Ready

Canonero II (1971)

3/71

4.2%

0/17

0%

Frosted, 4th place

13

Nyquist

Smarty Jones (2004)

4/69

5.8%

1/17

5.9%

War Story, 16th place

14

Mohaymen

Carry Back (1961)

2/61

3.3%

0/17

0%

Mr. Z, 13th place

15

Outwork

American Pharoah (2015)

5/54

9.3%

3/17

17.6%

American Pharoah, 1st place

16

Shagaf

Animal Kingdom (2011)

4/45

9.3%

3/17

17.6%

Upstart, 18th place

17

Mor Spirit

N/A

0/37

0%

0/16

0%

Far Right, 15th place

18

Majesto

Gato Del Sol (1982)

1/29

3.4%

0/15

0%

Frammento, 11th place

19

Brody’s Cause

I’ll Have Another (2012)

1/24

4.2%

1/12

8.3%

N/A

20

Danzing Candy

Big Brown (2008)

1/14

7.1%

1/6

16.7%

N/A

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