Does Post Position Affect the Odds of Winning the Derby?

Known as the "fastest two minutes in sports," the Kentucky Derby is the king of all horse races. Up to twenty of the country's fastest three-year-old thoroughbreds sprint around the mile and a quarter track at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., in hopes of picking up the first jewel in racing's Triple Crown series.

The "Run for the Roses" attracts over $80 million in wagers, and theories of how to pick a winner abound. Of all the variables that could affect the outcome, one of the favorites is the order in which the horses line up at the opening gate, otherwise known as the post position.

Post positions are numbered from one to 20, with No. 1 being on the track's inside rail and No. 20 being the farthest outside. Let's look at how these positions are determined, and which one has historically been the most successful.

From 1998 to 2009, the Derby used a two-tiered drawing system to determine starting positions. In the first drawing, owners drew a number from one to 20, and this number would determine the order in which they could choose their starting position. So, if an owner drew number 3, then he would have third pick as to which starting gate he wanted for his horse. Horses differ in their running styles, some prefer to be closer to the inside rail while others prefer to be on the outside, where there is more space.

Starting in 2010, the selection process will return to the traditional blind draw used prior to 1998. In this system, the number drawn will be the horse's actual starting gate. So, the owner who draws the number 3 gets gate 3. This process will take away some of the strategy of being able to choose from the available gates. Derby officials cite the declining television coverage of the draw along with requests from owners and trainers as the reason for the switch.

Once the post positions are determined and you know where your favorite three-year-old will be, you may wonder what the odds are of winning from that gate.

Historically, the best position has been the No. 2 post. Out of the 135 previous Derby runs, the horse in this position has won 29 times. Unlike auto racing where the No. 1 position is coveted, horse owners and jockeys usually prefer gates in the No. 2 to No. 10 positions. In these spots, there is less chance of getting pinned along the rail than there is for the No. 1 position, yet they still put the horse close enough to the rail to be inside many other horses at the first turn. An amazing 96 winners have come from the No. 2 to No.10 posts.

In the last 52 years, only two horses have won after starting from outside the No. 16 post. But don't start slamming mint juleps just yet if your horse ends up in the No. 20 post. In 2008, Big Brown, the pre-race favorite, won from that spot after his owners chose that position for him.

Dan Peterson writes about sports science at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental.