For Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, it was the best of draws and the worst of draws.
Seeking his sixth victory in the Kentucky Derby (GI) at Churchill Downs on Saturday, Baffert entered three top contenders on Tuesday morning — 5-1 second choice Game Winner, and 6-1 co-third choices Roadster and Improbable.
Improbable got the best of it with the No. 5 post in a full field of 20 horses, a spot that’s produced more winners (10) than any other post since the starting gate was first used in 1930. Most recently, Always Dreaming won from the No. 5 post in 2017.
Roadster may have gotten the worst of it with the No. 17 post — a spot that has produced zero winners (0-for-40, according to Churchill Downs).
Game Winner drew the No. 16 post, which has fared quite a bit better than No. 17 with five winners, most recently Orb in 2013.
“They’ll all be easy to watch. With Roadster I wanted the 16, so I got 16 and 17 (with Game Winner) and Improbable is a quicker horse,’’ said Baffert.
Perhaps the biggest plus for Baffert was not drawing the rail — the dreaded No. 1 post.
“Anything but the one or two I’m fine with that,’’ he said. “I think the good horses all drew well.”
War of Will, listed at 20-1 on the morning line by oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, wound up on the rail. When Battaglia saw where War of Will would start, he immediately raised the odds on the Lecomte (GIII) and Risen Star (GII) winner who has been training superbly the past few weeks.
The reason? The No. 1 post has not produced a Derby winner since Ferdinand since 1986. Before that, Chateaugay won from the rail in 1963.
War of Will’s trainer Mark Casse buried his face in his hands when the post was announced, then looked up and smiled.
“You know what, it could be worse I think,’’ said Casse. “ Our horse is really on his game so he’ll come away from there running. We’ll probably be on the lead. At least we have the shortest way around.”
Omaha Beach, the favorite at 4-1, drew the No. 12 post, which has produced three winners, although the most recent was 48 years ago when Canonero II won in 1971.
“Perfect. I love it,’’ said Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith, who chose Omaha Beach over Roadster. “Didn’t want to be down inside. I think I’m in a great spot.”
Post positions can play a huge role in how the 1 ¼-mile Derby unfolds. Some horses are not crazy about sitting in the gate waiting for the rest of the large field to load. Some are not completely ready when the gates spring open.
And then there’s the usual jostling for position, as jockeys try to get their horses into position during the cavalry charge into the first turn. Enter it too wide, and the horse has a longer distance to cover. Get bumped around during the scrum, and the horse may not run his best.
Add the possibility of rain on Derby day, and it’s even more important to be in a favorable spot on the racetrack from the start.
“We’re pleased with the five-hole,’’ said Elliott Walden, president of Winstar Farms, which owns Improbable along with China Horse Club and Starlight Racing. “We [Winstar] won [the 2010 Derby] with Super Saver out of four and with [Triple Crown winner] Justify out of seven, so we stayed in the same ballpark.”
Last year, Justify and Smith began their Derby run with a clean start over a sloppy, sealed track. They raced three wide in second place behind Promises Fulfilled, then pulled alongside with five furlongs to go, sprung clear with three furlongs left, held off Good Magic entering the stretch and won by 2 ½ lengths.
Of Baffert’s five Derby winners, two started from the No 5 post — War Emblem in 2002 and Silver Charm in 1997. One Triple Crown winner — Count Fleet in 1943 — started from the No. 5 post in the Derby.
No matter the post, says Baffert, they still have to break.
“I like 16. The 17 has been 0-for-40, but it’s like American Pharoah had the 18 and there was a scratch and he had the 17 for a day then he went to the 16.
“At the end of the day, you have to have the horse,’’ he added. “ If your horse shows up, that’s more important. After watching [2008 Derby winner] Big Brown gallop from the 20 hole it really doesn’t make a difference.”
The use of the starting gate began in 1930, so here’s a look at the winners based on post positions, followed by horses and their posts and odds for Saturday’s field in parentheses:
No. 1 – 8 winners, most recent Ferdinand in 1986 (War of Will, 20-1)
No. 2 – 7 winners, most recently Affirmed in 1978 (Tax, 20-1)
No. 3 – 5 winners, most recently Real Quiet in 1998 (By My Standards, 20-1)
No. 4 – 5 winners, most recently Super Saver in 2010 (Gray Magician, 50-1)
No. 5 – 10 winners, most recently Always Dreaming in 2017 (Improbable, 6-1)
No. 6 – 2 winners, most recently Sea Hero in 1993 (Vekoma, 20-1)
No. 7 – 7 winners, most recently Justify in 2018 (Maximum Security, 10-1)
No. 8 – 8 winners, most recently Mine That Bird in 2009 (Tacitus, 10-1)
No. 9 – 4 winners, most recently Riva Ridge in 1972 (Plus Que Parfait, 30-1)
No. 10 – 9 winners, most recently Giacomo in 2005 (Cutting Humor, 30-1)
No. 11 – 2 winners, most recently Winning Colors in 1988 (Haikal, 30-1)
No. 12 – 3 winners, most recently Canonero II in 1971 (Omaha Beach, 4-1)
No. 13 – 5 winners, most recently Nyquist in 2016 (Code of Honor, 15-1)
No. 14 – 2 winners, most recently Carry Back in 1961 (Win Win Win, 15-1)
No. 15 –3 winners, most recently Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 (Master Fencer, 50-1)
No. 16 – 5 winners, most recently Orb in 2013 (Game Winner, 5-1)
No. 17 – 0 winners (Roadster, 6-1)
No. 18 – 2 winners, most recently American Pharoah in 2015 (Long Range Toddy, 30-1)
No. 19 – 1 winner, I’ll Have Another in 2012 (Spinoff, 30-1)
No. 20 – 1 winner, Big Brown in 2008 (Country House, 30-1)
Note: There have been no winners from post Nos. 21, 22 and 23 in the time before the Derby was limited to 20 horses in 1975.