Analyzing the dreaded Kentucky Derby rail

Analyzing the dreaded Kentucky Derby rail
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

Year after year, a collective gasp is let out in the room when the rail post position is drawn for the Kentucky Derby. Although trouble can easily be found from any post in a 20-horse field, the inside post gives the horse and jockey the least amount of room for error.

It is intimidating for a young horse to face 19 other horses, but when they are all coming over on that horse at the start, it can lead to disaster. One only has to look to last year's controversial Kentucky Derby to see the impact of the rail.

War of Will, breaking from post 1, was rank throughout, tugging on Tyler Gaffalione with nowhere to go behind Maximum Security. When he tried to get out of that spot turning for home, he was boxed in as Maximum Security drifted out, leading to the disqualification of Maximum Security.

War of Will returned to win the Preakness, a race where post positions are of far less significance, while securing a perfect trip from the rail.

Though eight horse have won from the rail, most were in editions that featured fewer than 20 horses. The great Ferdinand in 1986 was the last horse to win from the rail in the Kentucky Derby.

Bob Baffert, whose top colt Lookin at Lucky received a rough trip from the rail in the 2010 Kentucky Derby, put drawing the outside versus the inside into perspective after Bodemeister drew post 20 for the 2012 Kentucky Derby.

“I was relieved that he didn’t get the one hole. I just didn’t want to be stuck on the rail, like I was with Lookin at Lucky and had that horrible feeling."

Watch the disaster that Lookin at Lucky, in the red and yellow cap, suffered in the first few hundred yards of the 2010 Derby.

The rail draw is certainly worse for some horses than it is for others. Horses that are pure speed can hope to bolt for the front out of the gate and take the quickest way around the track. If that horse breaks just a step slow, however, its race is over.

Horses that are deep closers also are less affected. They plan to sit behind everyone anyway, so the start is not as vital as a hot pace is for their chances. Those that are pressers or run mid-pack are almost guaranteed to have their style affected by the rail and thus usually are the biggest losers of a rail draw.

Below we take a look at a few of the top contenders for this year's Kentucky Derby that would be most affected and least affected by drawing the rail.

Horses that would be most affected by the rail

Honor A. P.: Honor A. P. is a big, lumbering horse who is best served sitting just off the lead outside of the leaders. He has just enough early foot to be in early contention, but not enough speed out of the gate to secure a clear path. He would be left in no man's land and his big frame could be placed in a tight and awkward position as other runners jockey for position. He is a top contender with a good draw, but he might be eliminated from the rail.

Tiz the Law: Tiz the Law is more athletic and versatile than Honor A. P., which puts him in better position to acclimate to the rail, but the inside could still be the only thing to beat the heavy Derby favorite. He has the same tweener running style as Honor A. P. that could lead to a tight trip. Tiz the Law has drawn on the outside in most of his impressive victories, but two times that he tried to work out an inside trip — in the Holy Bull and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes — he ran into trouble. The Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, the only defeat on his sparkling resume, came at Churchill Downs as he was never comfortable looking for room.

Shirl's Speight: Shirl's Speight has more early speed than his two rivals listed above, which could help with positioning, but he lacks seasoning and dirt experience. He has good speed but might not be as quick as Authentic early. If Authentic or Art Collector draws near him, that could lead to problems. A horse taking this big of a step up in class and trying dirt for the first time needs everything to go right. If a couple of horses beat him to the punch and come over on him, he will have dirt kicked in his face early on. To clear from the rail, he may have to set suicidal fractions.

Horses that would be least affected by the rail

Art Collector: Art Collector has the tactical speed and the experience to navigate the rail better than most. He has shown the versatility to wire a field or to patiently sit just off the leader if needed. It is easy to picture a scenario where he breaks on top and sets the pace or is relaxed behind a horse or two, awaiting room that hopefully materializes.

Sole Volante and Enforceable: These two runners are arguably the two biggest closers in the field. They can take their time breaking from the gate, settle behind everyone, save ground and hope for a fast pace and open space. There are plenty of things that can get horses with their style beat, but the rail draw is not one of them.

Here is a look at the Kentucky Derby winners based on post positions in the last 40 years.

 PostWins Since 1980 Winning Horses
 11Ferdinand (1986)
 32 Real Quiet (1998); Alysheba (1987) 
 41Super Saver (2010) 
  5  6 Always Dreaming (2017); California Chrome (2014), Funny Cide (2003); War Emblem (2002); Silver Charm (1997); Strike the Gold (1991) 
  6  1 Sea Hero (1993) 
 7 3  Justify (2018); Street Sense (2007); Pleasant Colony (1981)
 84Mine That Bird (2009); Barbaro (2006); Go for Gin (1994); Unbridled (1990) 
 106Giacomo (2005); Lil E. Tee (1992); Sunday Silence (1989); Spend a Buck (1985); Sunny’s Halo (1983); Genuine Risk (1980) 
 111Winning Colors (1988) 
 132Nyquist (2016); Smarty Jones (2004) 

Fusaichi Pegasus (2000); Grindstone (1996); Swale (1984) 

 16 5  Orb (2013); Animal Kingdom (2011); Monarchos (2001); Charismatic (1999); Thunder Gulch (1995)
  17  0  
 182American Pharoah (2015); Gato Del Sol (1982) 
 191I'll Have Another (2012) 
 202Country House (2020); Big Brown (2008) 

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