The Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve is rightfully known as the most exciting two minutes in sports; once the Churchill Downs starting gate springs open anything can (and often does) happen. For the 20 3-year-old Thoroughbreds competing it is one of the most important moments of their lives; racing luck can make or break their Derby run from the start. However, some of that luck comes into play days beforehand: the luck of the post position draw.
Kentucky Derby post positions are randomly assigned the Tuesday 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 substantial impact on strategy and potentially on the race’s outcome.
Instinct might suggest that the inside posts are favorable since the running near 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.
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 are left 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, No. 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 19.1, with no field smaller than 16. Nine of the 19 winners since 2000 broke 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 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 19 used the auxiliary gate and seven of 19 winners broke from post 15 or higher. The success rate for horses in the auxiliary gate in that time is 7-for-96, or 7.3 percent. Horses in the main gate since 2000 have gone 12-for-266 for a 4.5 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 of 58 horses that left those gates won, giving the gates a 10.9 percent win rate. Since 1987, the win rate for posts 1, 2, or 3 is just 1.08 percent (1-for-93).
Other interesting post-position stats include an 11.2 percent win rate for gate 5, which was the post position of both 2017 winner Always Dreaming and 2014 winner California Chrome and will house one of the top contenders this year in Improbable, and a 0 percent win rate for gate 17, which after the scratch of Omaha Beach became the post of longshot Long Range Toddy this year. 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, home to Master Fencer this year, has just two winners and is winless since 1961. On the winning end of the spectrum, Gate 10 produces Derby winners at an 11 percent clip, and horses finish in the money (top three) from there a remarkable 29.3 percent of the time. Cutting Humor will break from post 10 this weekend.
Get the stats on all the post positions below, updated to reflect the scratches of Omaha Beach and Haikal. All horses to the outside of Haikal's post 11 move in two positions. The also-eligible Bodexpress draws into post 19.
|Post||2019 Runner||Most Recent Winner||Starts||Wins||Win %||In-The-Money Finishes||ITM %||2018 Result|
|1||War of Will||Ferdinand (1986)||89||8||9.0%||18||20.2%||Firenze Fire, 11th place|
|2||Tax||Affirmed (1978)||89||7||7.9%||25||28.1%||Free Drop Billy, 16th place|
|3||By My Standards||Real Quiet (1998)||89||5||5.6%||19||21.3%||Promises Fulfilled, 15th place|
|4||Gray Magician||Super Saver (2010)||89||5||5.6%||15||16.9%||Flameaway, 13th place|
|5||Improbable||Always Dreaming (2017)||89||10||11.2%||22||24.7%||Audible, 3rd place|
|6||Vekoma||Sea Hero (1993)||89||2||2.2%||13||14.6%||Good Magic, 2nd place|
|7||Maximum Security||Justify (2018)||88||7||8.0%||18||20.5%||Justify, 1st place|
|8||Tacitus||Mine that Bird (2009)||88||8||9.1%||17||19.3%||Lone Sailor, 8th place|
|9||Plus Que Parfait||Riva Ridge (1972)||85||4||4.7%||17||20.0%||Hofburg, 7th place|
|10||Cutting Humor||Giacomo (2005)||82||9||11.0%||24||29.3%||My Boy Jack, 5th place|
|11||Code of Honor||Winning Colors (1988)||78||2||2.6%||11||14.1%||Bolt d'Oro, 12th place|
|12||Win Win Win||Canonero II (1971)||74||3||4.1%||9||12.2%||Enticed, 14th place|
|13||Master Fencer||Nyquist (2016)||72||5||6.9%||19||26.4%||Bravazo, 6th place|
|14||Game Winner||Carry Back (1961)||64||2||3.1%||12||18.8%||Mendelssohn, 20th place|
|15||Roadster||American Pharoah (2015)||57||5||8.8%||8||14.0%||Instilled Regard, 4th place|
|16||Long Range Toddy||Animal Kingdom (2011)||47||4||8.5%||10||21.3%||Magnum Moon, 19th place|
|17||Spinoff||N/A||40||0||0.0%||3||7.5%||Solomini, 10th place|
|18||Country House||Gato Del Sol (1982)||32||1||3.1%||5||15.6%||Vino Rosso, 9th place|
|19||Bodexpress||I’ll Have Another (2012)||27||1||3.7%||2||7.4%||Noble Indy, 17th place|
|20||Big Brown (2008)||17||1||5.9%||2||11.8%||Combatant, 18th place|