2018 Kentucky Derby Post Positions by the Numbers

Racing
The 2016 Kentucky Derby field after leaving the starting gate.
The 2016 Kentucky Derby field after leaving the starting gate. (Eclipse Sportswire)

When the horses spring from the starting gate for the 2018 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, anything can happen. Luck often plays a significant role in the outcome. However, some of that luck comes into play days earlier: the luck of the draw. The post position draw, that is.

Kentucky Derby post positions are randomly assigned days before the race, but their influence on the race seems to be far from arbitrary.

The Kentucky Derby has used a starting gate since 1930; two of them actually. One holds 14 horses and the other, called the auxiliary gate, is attached to the outside of the main gate and holds six more horses. This allows up to 20 horses to run in the race, and where in the gate a horse is positioned can have a big impact on strategy and potentially on the race’s outcome.

Instinct might suggest that the inside posts are favorable, since the rail is the shortest way around a racetrack. This could be true in races with fields of 10 horses or less, but in the Kentucky Derby there are 20 racehorses leaping from the gate and rushing to secure position before the field heads into the first turn. This means there’s a lot of bumping and jostling as the field compresses to the inside of the racetrack. And that means the horses already on the inside are going to get the worst of it, which could discourage them or negatively affect their positioning.

Kentucky Derby first turn Churchill Downs American Pharoah
Saving ground on first turn can be critical. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Horses on the outside are usually subject to less bumping, but if they don’t make it across the track before the turn they are left racing wide. In the Kentucky Derby the turns account more than 40 percent of the 1 ¼-mile race. Assuming the width needed for a racehorse and rider is 4 feet, for every path off the rail, a horse runs more than 25 feet farther. 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 grueling. It’s important to find a balance between 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 post position is ideal? Conventional wisdom says that somewhere in the middle of the gate, Nos. 5-15, is best. Some trainers, owners, or jockeys prefer the outside of the main gate (post 14) or inside of the auxiliary gate (post 15) for the extra space they afford.

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. The average field size in the history of the Derby is 13.2 horses, but the average field size since the turn of the century is 19, with no field smaller than 16. Nine of the 18 winners since 2000 broke from gate 13 or higher. From the 70 races that used a gate before 2000, just 10 horses broke from gate 13 or higher. Some of the recent winners were favorites (Nyquist, American Pharoah, Big Brown, etc.) who might have won from an inside gate anyway, but some weren’t.

Focusing on the auxiliary gate, stalls 15-20, makes the trend even more apparent. In Kentucky Derbys contested in 1999 and earlier, 38 used the auxiliary gate and four Derby winners broke from there. Since 2000, all 18 used the auxiliary gate and seven of 18 winners broke from post 15 or higher. The success rate for horses in the auxiliary gate in that time is 8-for-90, or 7.8 percent. Horses in the main gate since 2000 have gone 11-for-252 for a 4.4 percent success rate.

Confirmation 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 came up just a nose shy of winning the Triple Crown. Before 1987, 19 horses won from those gates, and the gates had an 11.1 percent win rate. Since 1987, the win rate for posts 1, 2, or 3 is just 1.1 percent.

Other interesting post-position stats include an 11.4 percent win rate for gate 5, which was the post position of both 2017 winner Always Dreaming and 2014 winner California Chrome and is the post position of a top choice in Audible this year, and a 0 percent win rate for gate 17. No horse has ever won from that post position, and the last time gate 17 produced a horse that finished in the top five was 2005. Top three? 1988, when Forty Niner was second. Gate 14 has just two winners and is winless since 1961. Mendelssohn breaks from 14 this year. 

Back on the winning end of the spectrum, Gate 10, occupied by My Boy Jack this year, produces Derby winners at an 11.1 percent clip, and horses finish in the money (top three) from there a remarkable 29.6 percent of the time.

Get the stats on all the post positions below. This year’s contenders will be added after the post position draw on Tuesday.

Post Position

2018 Contender

Most Recent Winner

Starts

Wins

Win Percent

In-The-Money Finishes

ITM Percent

Last Year’s Result

1

Firenze Fire

Ferdinand (1986)

88

8

9.1%

18

20.5%

Lookin At Lee, 2nd place

2

Free Drop Billy

Affirmed (1978)

88

7

8.0%

25

28.4%

Thunder Snow, 20th place

3

Promises Fulfilled

Real Quiet (1998)

88

5

5.7%

19

21.6%

Fast and Accurate, 17th place

4

Flameaway

Super Saver (2010)

88

5

5.7%

15

17.0%

Untrapped, 12th place

5

Audible

Always Dreaming (2017)

88

10

11.4%

21

23.9%

Always Dreaming, 1st place

6

Good Magic

Sea Hero (1993)

88

2

2.3%

12

13.6%

State of Honor, 19th place

7

Justify

Street Sense (2007)

87

6

6.9%

17

19.5%

Girvin, 13th place

8

Lone Sailor

Mine that Bird (2009)

87

8

9.2%

17

19.5%

Hence, 11th place

9

Hofburg

Riva Ridge (1972)

84

4

4.8%

17

20.2%

Irap, 18th place

10

My Boy Jack

Giacomo (2005)

81

9

11.1%

24

29.6%

Gunnevera, 7th place

11

Bolt d'Oro

Winning Colors (1988)

77

2

2.6%

11

14.3%

Battle of Midway, 3rd place

12

Enticed

Canonero II (1971)

73

3

4.1%

9

12.3%

Sonneteer, 16th place

13

Bravazo

Nyquist (2016)

71

5

7.0%

19

26.8%

J Boys Echo, 15th place

14

Mendelssohn

Carry Back (1961)

63

2

3.2%

12

19.0%

Classic Empire 4th place

15

Instilled Regard

American Pharoah (2015)

56

5

8.9%

8

14.3%

McCraken, 8th place

16

Magnum Moon

Animal Kingdom (2011)

46

4

8.7%

10

21.7%

Tapwrit, 6th place

17

Solomini

N/A

39

0

0.0%

3

7.7%

Irish War Cry, 10th place

18

Vino Rosso

Gato Del Sol (1982)

31

1

3.2%

5

16.1%

Gormley, 9th place

19

Noble Indy

I’ll Have Another (2012)

26

1

3.8%

2

7.7%

Practical Joke, 5th place

20

Combatant

Big Brown (2008)

16

1

6.3%

2

12.5%

Patch, 14th place

Blended Citizen is also eligible and could run in the race from post 20 if a horse scratches before Friday.

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