Kentucky Derby Post One Poppycock

We hear it every year: Post position one is the kiss of death in the Kentucky Derby — the equivalent of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s albatross, Edgar Alan Poe’s raven or a movie that includes “directed by Michael Bay” in the opening credits.

When Lookin At Lucky drew the rail in the 2010 Run for the Roses, trainer Bob Baffert looked like he’d been punched in the stomach… then kicked in the groin… then slapped in the face.

“I just don’t remember a horse of this caliber being in the one hole since I’ve come here,” the three-time Derby-winning trainer said. “I’d rather be outside — less things going on. You can get caught down there and hit the brakes.”

The post one pity party continued in 2011.

“Not a good place to be,” noted trainer William “Jinks” Fires after his horse (Archarcharch) was assigned the first spot in the Derby starting gate that year. “I’ve never liked the one hole, but you got to do what you got to do.

“We’d like to lay just off the pace and with the one hole if you don’t go with them a ways you’ll get shuffled way back,” said Fires, whose colt had rallied from ninth — of 13 — at the first call in his final Kentucky Derby prep, the Arkansas Derby.

If you ask me (and if you didn’t, please just pretend you did) all this railing about the rail is silly.

Simply put, there is no such thing as a post-one bias in the Kentucky Derby — it’s the tooth fairy, Santa Claus and a thought-provoking episode of the “Maury Show” all rolled into one.

Here’s what racing analyst Randy Moss says about this modern day myth:

“First off, the No. 1 post position in the Kentucky Derby is not a death sentence, no matter what you read,” Moss wrote in a 2010 blog post entitled “Is he finally lookin’ at lucky?

“If you have the time, consult YouTube to watch the video of Derby runnings from 2003-2009, and you won’t see meaningful early trouble for any of those rail-drawn horses,” Moss continued. “As a matter of fact, in each of those years, the horses breaking from the inside post outran their projected finishes based on final odds (average odds ranking 15th, average finish 9.5).”

Let me quit clapping for a moment and add that a host of other data I’ve gathered backs up Moss’ contention that the one hole is not instant Derby death.

Let’s start by looking at the post position stats as a whole (through 2016):

20-Horse-Field_Stats

Notice that, not only does the number one post position have a positive impact value — a ratio popularized by Dr. William Quirin that measures actual wins in relation to expected wins (in this case, the success rate divided by the par) — but  the ROI, while negative, is better than average as well.

I know what some of you are thinking: Well, sure Derek, that’s overall. The real problem with breaking from the rail is when there are a lot of Derby entrants and the auxiliary gate is used. In those cases, the horse stuck in the one hole needs to veer right at the start in order to avoid hitting the inner rail, which inevitably leads to bumping and herding — and a rotten trip.

Alrighty then!

Let’s take a gander at the Derby post position digits when the auxiliary gate has been utilized (fields of 15 or more horses):

 Auxiliary_Gate_Stats

Talk about things that make you go hmm: check out that impact value. Far from being a disadvantage, the numbers indicate that breaking from the rail when the auxiliary gate is used is actually a major plus.

Aah, but once again I hear the cries of dissent.

“Yeah, but that’s with less than 20 horses,” the critics wail. “With a full field, it’s impossible to win from the rail.”

And the survey says…

 20-Horse-Field_Stats

Once again, we see a healthy impact value, albeit from a ridiculously small sample.

So, after the Derby draw, when the inevitable crying and moaning about the one-hole begins in earnest, remember these statistics.

The truth shall set you free.

Tale of the Tape: Analyzing the Trips of Derby Rail Runners Since 2002

2016: Trojan Nation broke well, but was impeded a bit by Suddenbreakingnews and had to check shortly after the break. However, it should be noted that Trojan Nation was still a maiden and was 42-1 (too low, in my opinion) in the race.

2015: Ocho Ocho Ocho (26-1) got a perfect trip, breaking well and settling in nicely behind the early runners. He steadily moved up and was in fifth-place as the field turned for home, before fading to finish 14th.

2014: Like Oxbow the year before, Vicar’s In Trouble broke from post two and had clear sailing before being herded a bit after the field had travelled just over a sixteenth of a mile. Once settled, the son of Into Mischief loomed a presence until the 3/8-pole and then faded badly to finish 19th and last, beaten by 39 ½ lengths. Coincidentally, Vicar’s In Trouble also finished last in his only other Grade I start — the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile — the following year. But he broke from post three in that affair and, hence, was only beaten by 35 ½ lengths.

2013: Due to a late scratch, Oxbow actually broke from post position two, but he got a beautiful ground-saving trip en route to a decent sixth-place finish at 24-1. 

2012: Daddy Long Legs was able to establish great position entering the first turn last year; the problem was the UAE Derby winner was hopelessly overmatched. Since finishing last in Louisville, the son of Scat Daddy has failed to hit the board in six subsequent starts.

2011: Although the official chart notes that Archarcharch “steadied early,” I defy anybody to watch the overhead replay and point out where this supposed steadying took place — and, if it did take place and I need to have a serious talk with my Lasik surgeon, how much did it really affect the stretch-running colt? Frankly, the horse had a dream trip and, regrettably, got hurt.

2010: There’s no denying that Lookin At Lucky had a horrendous trip, but the bulk of his trouble occurred when Paddy O’Prado bulled his way through the field and herded Stately Victor into the favorite’s path nearing the one-mile pole, which would have happened to any horse in jockey Kent Desormeaux’s path that day. And, frankly, such rough riding incidents will probably continue given that only two horses in Derby history have ever been disqualified — just one for a racing-related incident (Gate Dancer for lugging out and bothering Fali Time in 1984).

2009: West Side Bernie’s biggest obstacle was not the one hole, but his lack of speed.

2008: Cool Coal Man had a perfect trip; he simply wasn’t good enough.

2007: Sedgefield, a horse that wound up winning exactly two lifetime races — both on grass — finished a very respectable fifth, thanks in part to a rail-hugging run from post one.

2006: Jazil broke inward — the one thing you can’t do when starting from the rail — yet still managed to recover and close ground late, eventually finishing in a dead heat for fourth with Brother Derek.

2005: Another perfect trip that the overmatched Sort It Out, whose Derby credentials included an allowance score and a win in the ungraded Whirlaway, was unable to take advantage of.

2004: Outside of steadying slightly entering the first turn, Limehouse had a dream run, finishing fourth at 41-1.

2003: Supah Blitz actually caused more trouble than he endured, veering out at the start and causing Brancusi to bump with Atswhatimtalknbout.

2002: BC Juvenile winner Johannesburg had a tough trip… but only because he entered the Kentucky Derby off of one seven-furlong prep — on the lawn — and seemed ill-prepared to go 10 furlongs.

Start_2016-KYDerby

While it may appear that the rail juts out into the path of the one-horse, the truth is any hindrance the inner rail causes is mild at most. To prove my point, I offer an aerial view of the start of last year’s Run for the Roses, which featured a full field of 20 horses. Note the room that the 1-horse (Trojan Nation) has to maneuver.

Derek Simon
Derek Simon is the Senior Editor and Handicapper at US Racing.