Uncovering the Mystery of the Kentucky Derby's ‘Dreaded' Post

In the most exciting two minutes in sports, only one post has yet to crown a winner at Churchill Downs

Twenty of the top thoroughbreds will sprint out of the starting gates at Churchill Downs for the 144th Kentucky Derby on May 5, but one horse might not stand a chance. 

In the days before the "fastest two minutes in sports," trainers and jockeys eagerly await the post position draw. Positions are assigned randomly, but a horse's position might have a dramatic impact on its chances to wear the roses at the end of Saturday. 

Historically, the Derby has boasted multiple winners from different positions, but one post has never had a winner since the race implemented the starting gate in 1930: the "dreaded" post number 17. 

Horses that drew the 17th post are a combined 0-39, with the most recent horse, trainer Graham Motion's Irish War Cry, coming in 10th in 2017. However, in recent years, other outside posts have been very successful; nine of the last 17 winners since 2000 have broken from post 13 or higher, including Nyquist (13), American Pharoah (15), Big Brown (20), I'll Have Another (19) and Animal Kingdom (16). 

Horse racing expert handicapper Michael Dempsey believes the mystery of post 17 is a statistical anomaly. Dempsey says generally trainers and jockeys would prefer to be on the outer posts than the inside posts. Trainers with speed horses prefer to be on the inside, because they can get off to a quicker start. But for horses that come off the pace, they don't tend to experience trouble heading down the stretch.

"If one of the favorites is a speed horse and he gets an outside post, that's not good. But if the horse comes from off the pace then it's not that big of a deal," Dempsey said.

He says that in most horse races there's a short run to the first turn, but in the Kentucky Derby the first turn is fairly long, putting horses with early speed at a disadvantage from those inner posts. In fact, since 1988, the innermost posts (1, 2 and 3) have just a 1.1 percent win rate, according to America's Best Racing.

"So I don't really think the outside posts are a disadvantage, even though the statistics tell us otherwise. If I liked a horse to win a race and then he drew that 17, 18, or 19 post, that wouldn't sway me," Dempsey said. 

Graham Motion, who trained former Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom out of the 16 post in 2011, says that post positions aren't as important as the horse itself. He explained that because there is so much pressure and focus on the race worldwide, sometimes horses can't handle it. 

"It's a unique atmosphere from the moment the horse reaches the starting gate. With the derby, there is so much focus on it you try to not get caught up in it," Motion said in an interview with NBC.

Motion's horse in the Derby last year, Irish War Cry, came into the race as a 6-1 favorite despite landing the 17 post and ended up finishing 10th at the end of the race. 

"I think it's a lot of stress for some horses. For Irish War Cry, it just wasn't his day. Like any other athlete, you have your good days and bad days," Motion said. "But it's a coincidence. I think eventually someone will win from there. It's a matter of not having to cover so much ground." 

For Motion, he had no doubts about winning from any post position when Animal Kingdom, with jockey John R. Velazquez, drew the 16 post in 2011. Motion said the confidence and relationship a jockey has with a horse matters more than any position they start out of. 

"In order to win the Kentucky Derby it's important that the horse is able to relax. You don't want them to run on nerves because it won't end up great," Motion said. "Horses can't talk back to you, so you just have to figure it out for yourself and get to know them and have a jockey that you have confidence in." 

You can watch the 2018 Kentucky Derby on NBC's live TV broadcast on Saturday, May 5. Coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. ET.

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