How will 20-horse starting gate affect 2024 Kentucky Derby horses and their post positions?

The historic 150th edition of the Kentucky Derby will be the fifth to use a custom-made, 65-foot starting gate to house the Derby field prior to the start of the race.

Specifically designed for the Kentucky Derby, the special starting gate made its debut in 2020, with the goal of eliminating any disadvantages that came with the previous two-gate system.

That system dated back to 1942, and featured a main gate that held the first 14 horses and an auxiliary gate that held the remaining horses in the field, if needed.

This 20-horse starting gate — designed by Australian company Steriline Racing — features stalls that have wide interiors and narrow dividers.

The past issues with the two-gate system were well known: A post-position draw too close to the rail forced a horse to veer to the right to avoid the rail after leaving the gate. A post-position draw on the outside of the main gate or the interior of the auxiliary gate brought the wide gap that separated the gates into play.

The 20-horse gate is used in the name of fairness, with the idea of removing disadvantages for horses that were dealt a difficult post-position draw.

Max Player (2020), Epicenter (2022), Mo Donegal (2022) and Two Phil’s (2023) have all posted top-five finishes from post positions 1-3 in the last four editions of the Kentucky Derby.

This year will be a good test case for the 20-horse starting gate with regard to the performance of horses drawn near the rail.

Dornoch (post No. 1 with morning-line odds of 20-1), Sierra Leone (No. 2, 3-1) and Mystik Dan (No. 3, 20-1) represent three horses of quality that have been drawn on the extreme inside to begin the Derby.

Dornoch has a pair of graded stakes wins to his name in the Remsen and Fountain of Youth. Sierra Leone is fresh off an impressive, late-charging win in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Mystik Dan won the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes and ran third in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park during the prep season, and has previously won at Churchill Downs.

In particular, Mystik Dan figures to factor into this year’s Derby outcome if rain occurs.

Sierra Leone is the second choice on the Derby morning line. The third choice on the morning-line, Catching Freedom (8-1) is right next to this group in post position 4.

There’s plenty of talent with an inside draw in this year’s Derby. The question is how will those horses approach the race?

“We’ve been talking about keeping his face clean, so his face is going to be clean. It’s going to be a fast, heated pace and we’re coming out of there running now,” Danny Gargan, the Louisville-born trainer of Dornoch, told FanDuel Racing after last Saturday’s post- position draw. “You have no choice when you get the one hole. We’ve run them off their feet (with Dornoch) in other races before. We’re going to run them off their feet in this one, I guess.”

Gargan — who also has Society Man (post position 19 and program number 20) in this year’s Derby field — added that the post-position draw around Dornoch should help the horse set the early pace.

“I’m excited that the other speed horses are way further out. ... All the horses right outside (Dornoch) are not really horses that are going to go to the front,” Gargan said. “So we should have plenty of time to break. ... We don’t have to get all the way over, we’ve just got to break and move up a little bit.”

Dornoch will begin the Kentucky Derby from post position No. 1, not as dreaded a spot in the starting gate as it used to be.
Dornoch will begin the Kentucky Derby from post position No. 1, not as dreaded a spot in the starting gate as it used to be.

According to the TimeformUS Pace Projector for Saturday’s Derby, the trio of Dornoch, Just a Touch (post position 8) and Track Phantom (post position 11 and program number 12) are expected to be the early pace setters.

“I still want him to jump well from the gates, and he’s done that in the past,” said Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Track Phantom and someone with the most Derby starters (25) without a winner in the race. “I love our draw ... it gives (jockey Joel Rosario) plenty of options, but hopefully with that being said, hopefully he jumps well from the gates and then he goes from there.”

For the Derby, Track Phantom will be wearing blinkers for the first time.

The TimeformUS Pace Projector doesn’t include the two Japanese horses in the field, T O Password (post position 9 and program number 10) and Forever Young (post position 10 and program number 11).

Another wild-card factor is the pre-race routine of Sierra Leone.

The Blue Grass Stakes winner isn’t known for his calm composure. Sierra Leone was the last of 10 horses to load into the starting gate for the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland last month. He took more than two minutes to load while the other nine horses waited in their gates.

After Sierra Leone finally made it into position, another horse in the field, Good Money, acted up briefly before the race began.

The horses were not released and reloaded into their gates ahead of the Blue Grass, despite Sierra Leone’s antics. How will Sierra Leone act Saturday as part of a massive 20-horse gaggle that must all load into their starting gates?

“He’s visited the gate twice this week and he did really well,” Chad Brown, the trainer of Sierra Leone, said last Saturday.

Brown also has Domestic Product (post position 14 and program number 15) in this year’s race.

“You just try to avoid those landmines and end up with a post that can’t hurt you,” Brown said last Saturday, prior to the post-position draw. “It’s much like training. We weren’t going to go out there and do anything to win the race today, (but) there’s plenty you can do to lose it. I think with posts it’s the same way. You’re trying to get a post where you don’t lose the race there. I don’t think there’s a magic post where you’re going to win.”

History speaks to Brown’s point.

The Kentucky Derby has produced a winner from each of the 20 post positions that will be used Saturday, except for one.

Post position No. 17 is the only post to have never produced a Derby winner. Starters from No. 17 are 0-for-44 when it comes to winning the Derby.

This year, pre-race favorite Fierceness was initially drawn into post position 17. But with the scratch of Encino (who had post position 9), all horses that were drawn into the 10-20 starting gates will shift inside one gate to make room for Epic Ride (program number 21), a former also-eligible horse who is now in the field and will leave from post position 20.

As such, Fierceness (program number 17) will avoid the dreaded 17 hole and instead leave from post position 16, which has produced four Derby winners from 51 all-time starters.

Stronghold (program number 18) is set to leave from the unenviable post position 17.

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