Kentucky Derby post positions by the numbers

BY Christina Moore, America's Best Racing • May 2, 2017

A lot of factors affect the outcome of the Kentucky Derby, and the post position draw is one of the most impactful, wreaking havoc on the nerves of owners, trainers and jockeys of Derby hopefuls. Post positions are assigned randomly, but their effect on a horse’s chance at wearing the roses seems to be far from arbitrary.

The Kentucky Derby uses two starting gates: the regular 14-horse gate used for all races at Churchill Downs plus a six-horse auxiliary gate attached to the outside of the main gate, allowing up to 20 horses to run in the race. A starting gate has been used since 1930, and where a horse is positioned in the gate is paramount to strategy and potential success.

Since the rail is the shortest way around a racetrack, instinct might suggest that inside is the best post position. While that might be true in races with 10 or less horses, in the Kentucky Derby there are 20 young Thoroughbreds scrambling to secure good position before the field heads into the first turn, which means horses already on the inside are subject to a lot of jostling and bumping as outside horses cross to the inside, sometimes discouraging them and oftentimes resulting in less-than-ideal positioning in the race, behind or completely surrounded by other horses.

Horses in outside posts usually take less bumping, but if they don’t get across the track quickly enough they are left wide on the turns. The two turns of the Kentucky Derby account for 2,667 feet of the 1 ¼-mile race; more than 40 percent. If a horse is hung wide for 40 percent of the race, they run farther and will get tired sooner. It’s important to find the right balance between far enough inside to save ground and outside enough that a jockey can easily maneuver to be in the clear for when the running really 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, however, the Kentucky Derby has attracted very large fields and winners have been coming from outside posts more often. The average field size in the history of the race is 13.1 horses. Since the turn of the century, though, the average is 18.9, with no fewer than 16 horses competing each year. Nine of the 17 winners since 2000 broke from gate 13 or higher. Those include last year’s winner, Nyquist (gate 13), American Pharoah (15), I’ll Have Another (19), Animal Kingdom (16) and Big Brown (20). From the 70 races that used a starting 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 another post, but some were not.

A look exclusively at the auxiliary gate, stalls 15-20, makes the trend even more obvious. In Kentucky Derbys contested in 1999 and earlier, 38 used the auxiliary gate and four Derby winners broke from there. Since 2000, all 17 used the auxiliary gate and seven of 17 winners broke from post 15 or higher. The success rate for horses in the auxiliary gate in that time is 7-for-84, or 8.3 percent. Horses in the main gate since 2000 have gone 10-for-238 for a 4.2 percent success rate.

More evidence of this trend away from inside posts is the fact that no horse has won the Kentucky Derby from gate 1 since Ferdinand in 1986, and 1988 is the last time a horse from gate 1 finished in the top three (Risen Star). Real Quiet, the 1998 Derby winner who came up a nose short of winning the Triple Crown, is the only horse to win the Kentucky Derby from post 1, 2 or 3 since 1987. Before 1987, 19 horses won from those gates, and the gates had an 11.1 percent win rate. Since 1988, the win rate for posts 1, 2 or 3 is just 1.1 percent.

Aside from the trend toward the outside posts, other interesting post position stats include an 11.3 percent win rate for gate 10 and a 0 percent win rate for gate 17 – that’s right, no horse has ever won from gate 17. It’s the only post without a winner. Gate 14 has just two winners and is winless since 1961. In fact, no horse has even finished in the money (top three) from gate 14 since 2000. Gate 18 hasn’t had a win since 1982, gate 9 since 1972 and gate 12 since 1971.