by Dick Powell
One of my weaknesses as a handicapper is putting too much emphasis on post position. When I try to visualize how a race will unfold, I usually foresee bad things happening for those drawn on the far outside (they will race out near the parking lot) or stuck down on the rail (they will be shuffled back into traffic every time).
BRIS' Ultimate Past Performances provide you with detailed post position information that has performed all the empirical analysis that you would ever need. Post positions are divided among the rail, post positions 1 through 3, 4 through 7 and 8 and out. It gives you the impact value for each group and the average win percentage.
Still, there will be a two-turn race at Gulfstream on the turf where outside posts are doing every bit as good as inside posts and I just can't overcome my intuitive sense that those on the outside are going to get a bad trip.
However, when the 20 horses of this year's Kentucky Derby (G1) had their post position drawn on Wednesday, many of the logical contenders drew so badly that I can legitimately use their post position against them.
First and foremost was poor ARCHARCHARCH (Arch) drawing the dreaded post 1. Yes, Willie Shoemaker won the 1986 Derby from post 1 aboard Ferdinand, but all you have to do is go back and watch a replay of last year's Derby and what happened to the favorite, Lookin at Lucky. The chart of the race tells part of the nightmare trip, "Lookin at Lucky roughed at the start and again in the initial furlong…"
With a 20-horse field, the horse that draws the one hole has to get away cleanly and then move out a bit to the right since the two starting gates are so wide that the inside post is actually inside the rail that comes up on them immediately. That would be bad enough, but as the rail horse is trying to get out, there are 19 horses that are all taking some kind of left-hand turn to try to get over to the inside and save ground. The results are often a sandwich with the rail on the left and the other horses on the right.
It doesn't even have to be the horse to his immediate right that causes the problem. Last year, there was a domino effect of horses on the outside crowding the horse on the inside who then crowded the horse on its inside as well. Lookin at Lucky took the worst of it and was valiant to even finish sixth.
When a horse has no early speed and wants to drop far back and make one, big run, the inside posts are not important. Last year, ICE BOX (Pulpit) rallied from far back to get second even though he broke from post position 2. The key was that is his preferred running style already, so the post position became somewhat irrelevant. He was steadied early which happened to a lot of the horses.
Archarcharch is neither a front-runner nor a deep closer. He races midpack, comes from behind and is most likely to have a bad trip from post 1. A confirmed speedball could overcome post 1 with an alert getaway. The problem would then be how much energy the horse would have to use to gain position. A confirmed closer can overcome post 1 since they are dropping far back anyway and wanted to be at the back of the pack.
It is the horses with the running style of Archarcharch that are most negatively affected by post position 1. I thought he had a big chance of winning this year's Derby and up until Wednesday's draw, it was all systems go. He was a sharp winner of the Arkansas Derby (G1) and was working brilliantly at Churchill Downs in the morning. He has the pedigree to not only win at 1 1/4 miles but do it on a wet track. Now, I don't think he can overcome post 1 unless he gets very lucky and the Derby is hard enough to handicap without factoring luck into the equation.
UNCLE MO (Indian Charlie) drew post 18 and he will be up against it. He has speed horses to his inside so for John Velazquez to try to make the lead from there he will be forced to use a lot of energy that he would be better off saving for the stretch run. If he doesn't try to make the lead, he runs the risk of being hung out five wide around the far turn.
NEHRO (Mineshaft) was gathering support as the Derby neared based on his two close finishes in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and Arkansas Derby, but he drew post 19. Unlike Uncle Mo in the stall to his immediate left, Nehro will be looking to drop back and get over to the inside but he'll have to do it cleverly while letting the horses to his inside clear out.
Morning-line favorite DIALED IN (Mineshaft) drew well in post position 8. Like Nehro, he will be dropping back but once the gate opens, the speed horses to his inside will be long gone and Julien Leparoux can get him over and save ground around the first turn.
You can drive yourself nuts by overanalyzing these things too much, since all scenarios are out the window when the starter springs the latches. I do like posts 14 and 15 if you are going to be on the outside, since 14 is the end of the first starting gate and 15 is the first stall of the second starting gate. With the two starting gates butting up against each other, there is a decent gap between 14 and 15 so those horses can break a bit awkwardly and have some room to recover. However, when you take this into account, make sure there are no late scratches since everyone will move down one and that horse that you liked in 14 is now in 13.
Speaking of late scratches, I have been surprised that Uncle Mo is still being considered for the Derby at this late date and would not be surprised at all if he is scratched Saturday afternoon. All the reports I have received this week from people on the backstretch say that he still looks like he has lost weight and not the robust picture of health you like to see. Maybe my dream race of him and THE FACTOR (War Front) in the Metropolitan H. (G1) might take place after all.