How to think about the post position factor in Kentucky Derby handicapping

April 29th, 2023

When it comes to the importance of the post-position draw for the Kentucky Derby (G1), I’m rather ambivalent. Whether a post is good or bad is generally dependent on who occupies it and/or what their running style is, while many times events simply overtake any advantages or disadvantages related to it away.

For example, breaking from an historically productive post isn’t going to help the horse with a miler’s pedigree get 1 1/4 miles. By the same token, post position becomes totally irrelevant when your pick happens to stumble, gets sideswiped leaving the gate or farther along in the opening quarter-mile as the scrum of 20 try to find the best possible spot before hitting the clubhouse turn.

I will grant you that inside draws are not the best place to be, regardless of running style, especially in full fields of 20. You have to go back to Ferdinand (1986) to find a Derby winner that broke from post 1, and to Triple Crown winner Affirmed (1978) to find one from post 2. However, they had the luxury of facing only 15 and 10 rivals, respectively.

Post 1 was not a good thing for a couple of my top selections in recent years. Lookin at Lucky, the lukewarm favorite in 2010, was roughed up badly in the first furlong as he tried to gain position and was shuffled back to 18th passing the finish line for the first time. Mo Donegal (2022) was generally a closer anyway, but his jockey chose to forfeit any ground-saving advantage the inside draw might have given him by taking the overland route into contention, rather than waiting for seams to open as 80-1 winner Rich Strike did.

There’s nothing really jinxed about other posts that haven’t yielded a winner in more than half a century. For example, Riva Ridge (1972) was the last winner from post 9, and Canonero II (1971) was the latest from post 12. But unless they are the superstitious type, I doubt horsemen are losing a lot of sleep Derby Week if their charges happen to draw either of these two stalls in the middle of the pack.

It is worth noting, though, how prolific outside posts have been in the last 15 years or so. Before the advent of the 20-stall gate within the last few years, horses breaking from posts 15 and up formerly broke from a smaller auxiliary gate. Orb (2013), American Pharoah (2015), and Authentic (2020) all broke from post 15; Animal Kingdom (2011) from post 16; Country House (2018) from 18; I’ll Have Another (2012) from 19; and Big Brown (2008) and the aforementioned Rich Strike from 20.

The biggest anomaly of all regarding the far outside posts is that 17 has never yielded a Derby winner in the long history of the race from 42 attempts. Given the recent success of horses breaking from posts surrounding 17, that might be a superstition horsemen and bettors may well prefer to think about on Derby Day.