The Kentucky Derby attracts some of the most consistently large fields of any North American thoroughbred race. That means post position matters – a lot.
With eight, nine or 10 runners, a game horse is relatively unlikely to be essentially eliminated in the first quarter-mile. In the Derby, with its 18, 19 and 20 horse fields, that’s remarkably common.
So which posts win the most Kentucky Derby roses?
We’ve crunched the numbers and created a visualization in our plan communications tool, OnePager. You can open it up by clicking the thumbnail on this page. (Note that numbers occasionally don’t correspond exactly to post, due to late scratches. American Pharoah broke from No. 16 last year, not his listed 18. But the effects are small.)
As you’d expect, winners are coming from farther out as fields have expanded. In the 1930s – the first decade Churchill Downs used a starting gate for the race – half the winners wore 1 (two) or 5 (three). The 1940s saw eight winners from the first five posts. The 2000s and 2010s, by contrast, have seen a total of just four winners from the 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 posts – and none from the first three.
Why the lack of inside wins lately? Too much traffic. Compare Whirlaway’s brilliant win in the 1941 Kentucky Derby …
with the 20 runners of 2012.
There’s just more room in the outside posts, and almost none inside. The last win from the 1 was Ferdinand in 1986. The great Affirmed was the fourth and final horse of the 1970s (and to date) to win from the 2, in 1978. Real Quiet took the Derby from the 3 slot in 1998. Is it impossible for an inside post to win the Kentucky Derby? Hardly – the race is often chaotic. But it’s a lot less likely than it was 40, 50 or 60 years ago.
What else can we take from our graphic? To start, you can clearly see the growth of field sizes. There were no winners beyond No. 14 until the 1980s. There were only nine winners from beyond No. 10 from 1930-1979; there have been 14 from 1980-2015. And the middle (Posts 6-12), so consistently strong from the 1950s through the 2000s, has fallen off entirely in the 2010s.
Then there’s 17. Poor, poor 17. It’s the only commonly used post to have never produced a Derby winner. (Fields occasionally went beyond 20 in the past, but have been limited to that number in recent years.)
Who will be stuck in unlucky 17 this year? We won’t know until this year’s post position draw, but whoever ends up there will surely be crying in his hay.
Of course, it could be worse – they could be 1, 2 or 3.
Update: Nyquist won the 2016 Kentucky Derby wearing No. 13. Exaggerator ran second wearing 11, and Gun Runner showed third with the No. 5 silks. Suddenbreakingnews came fifth, wearing No. 2.