Racing fact check: Kentucky Derby Post Position Draws

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Want to make the trainer of a horse in the Kentucky Derby think really hard? Ask him if he’d rather get a root canal or draw the rail in the big race.

That’s maybe a slight exaggeration but not much of one. Since the 1990’s at least, trainers have lamented drawing the rail as if it’s a built-in excuse to run a poor race. And a first look at the data over the past 28 years indicates why that is: the two inside gates are a collective 0 for 56 since 1991.

The theory goes that the cavalry charge into the first turn creates problems for the inside runners, causing them to potentially have to check or get buried down inside in uncomfortable spots. But it’s also possible that the poor performance of the inside gates is an aberration more than anything else. After all, this is the only two-turn race in America where trainers don’t want to be drawn inside, and it would seem that a horse with positional speed should be able to make his own trip from down there simply by getting out of the gate and getting position going forward. Let’s take a deeper look into the post-position data for the last 28 years:

Examining the above, we see that based on the odds they went off in the race, the inside post and second posts should have won at least 1 time each. Extending that, the first post has run second once, and never run third. The second post position has done slightly better at running in the money with 2 second place finishes, and four third place finishes.

The only horse under 4-1 in the bunch was Fly So Free back in ’91, and he got away from the gate just fine and ran a respectable – if disappointing fourth. The next lowest odds on the list belong to Crypto Star, who was fifth, and while connections complained about the draw at the time, it didn’t cause him noticeable trouble.

Lookin at Lucky was a shorter priced horse who broke from the first post position. He went off at just over 6 to 1. He was crunched toward the rail causing him to check by the horses breaking from the third and fourth post positions, those horses being Paddy O’Prado and Stately Victor. Could the trouble at the beginning have cost this horse a win? What we can say is that it caused him to check back early in the race, led him to be almost 20 lengths from the leader up the back stretch, and finally ended with him finishing up into 6th place. Let’s say he had won. That would’ve put the stat for the first post position as 1/28 and line it up just under the expected number of wins. Something to think about.

There are also plenty of runners who’ve gotten away just fine from the inside and outrun their odds — Looking At Lee is a recent example. The comment line on this horse reads “dream ins trip to 1/8” – and what a dream trip it was. Always Dreaming was simply better on this day, and his being forwardly placed played well to his advantage.

For what it’s worth, I took a look at the comment / trouble lines that each horse has associated with it. The first post position had “trouble” at the start in 7 of 28 trips which is just about the average rate that horses saw trouble across all posts. However, the second post position saw trouble in 11 out of 28 trips which is tied for highest, second only to post position 9 (13 trouble comments early out of 28 starts, and is also win-less).

(Note, in doing this analysis, I counted comment lines that included phrases such as ‘off slw’, ‘bang’, ‘bobble’, ‘bump’ and many others, to try to get an indication of how much trouble horses from posts encounter). Least trouble came from posts 5, 10, 13, 16, 17 and 20. These posts have combined for over half of the wins in the 28 years!

I’m not here today to tell you that the one hole is a good draw in the Derby. It could be the unusual configuration or because of the gate placement that the inside horse doesn’t have the benefit of the running rail for the first few strides. However, I am here to point out that there are a few potentially legitimate excuses for why it is win-less in the last 28 years.

Another post that appears to be deleterious to a horse’s chances looking at the raw data is the 14-hole. There might be a reason for this.

First, let’s consider the gate configuration. Post 14 is on the end of the main starting gate, and an auxiliary starting gate is located just to the outside of it. The auxiliary gate is angled slightly toward the rail, and this creates a scenario where it is possible the fourteen can be pinched, and forced to check back. That is evident from the discussion above about trouble comments. See this chart for a full look at trouble comments:

The fourteen post saw a significant number of early trouble comments and I have to think the positioning of that outside gate – if a horse ran straight from the aux gate he’d hit the rail before the first turn – is the reason why. It’s interesting to note that all of the top three posts in terms of trouble frequency have 0 wins combined and it doesn’t feel like a pure coincidence. And if I had a horse in the Derby, I’d be at least as worried about drawing the 14 post as the 1.

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