Traditionalists Stand by Derby Post Pill Pull

May 7, 2022; Louisville, KY, USA; The field breaks from the starting gate during the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Traditionalists Stand by Derby Post Pill Pull

Mattress Mack has an awesome promo where if the Kentucky Derby favorite wins you get your furniture free. Check out the flyer below, then let’s read about the Derby post pill pull:

In the National Football League, the winningest teams in each conference get a bye and home field advantage for the playoffs. Home field advantage is also a perk to teams that win their divisions in Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League. The best college basketball teams earn top seeds and get to play lower seeds in March Madness.

So, why is it in Thoroughbred racing the horses that earn the most points toward entry in the Kentucky Derby (G1) don’t get preferential treatment when post positions are drawn?

Monday’s draw for the Derby is a final hoop to jump through on the road to the Run for the Roses. Connections for the top 20 horses, by points earned in prep races, along with up to four also-eligibles, will assemble on the second floor of Churchill Downs and await their fate for the First Saturday in May.

As recent tradition holds, vice president of racing Ben Huffman will have an entry box that contains 20 sheets of paper with the names of the horses while assistant racing secretary Dan Bork will have a leather-clad bottle with pills in it numbered from 1-20. Bork will shake the bottle and pull a random pill and announce the number while Huffman draws one of the sheets and reads the name. The double-blind draw is how the post positions are determined.

The drama of the draw is a Maalox moment for many horsemen as it has been a long time since the one or two post position has emerged victorious. The last horse to win from the rail slot, Ferdinand, wore the roses in 1986—37 years ago. At the time, Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” topped the pop charts and we were spinning Van Halen’s “5150” album. Jimmy Carter was president when the last horse won from post two: Affirmed in 1978.

Churchill Downs has tried to eliminate the disadvantage of drawing inside by purchasing a 20-stall starting gate specifically for the Derby, which moves the inner posts farther away from the rail. It was unveiled for the 2020 Derby, so the sample size is small. During those three Derbys, the winners came from posts 15, 7, and 20. The horses on the rail finished fifth, ninth, and fifth. 

Each of the last two years, the rail horse was trained by Todd Pletcher. This year, the three to run in the Derby and the top two choices for the race reside in his shedrow: Forte and Tapit Trice. They are first and fourth on the points list.

The thought of weighting the system to have horses with the most points getting first pick is popular among owners on the frontside, but hardboot Kentucky trainers on the backstretch of Churchill Downs prefer the system the way it is.

“The blind draw is the way horse racing has been from day one and we need to keep it that way,” said trainer Dale Romans. “I like it the way it is. I’m a traditionalist. Points are the way a horse gets into the Derby, but everybody is equal with the draw. It doesn’t give anyone any favoritism. Everything is even. 

“The Derby brings together all of the best horses from all of the regions … they come here together for the first time and everything is even: May the best horse win. And who’s to say these are the best horses just because Churchill Downs put together a formula to see who has the most points? That would be too much human involvement.”

“Why re-invent the wheel?” concurred trainer Wayne Catalano. “I’d stay with tradition. 

“But if you want to do something different, why not pay? Everyone has to pay $50,000 (it’s $25,000 to enter and $25,000 to start) to get in…if you want to pay more, make it like seats on an airplane,” he mused. “But I’m gonna stay with tradition.

Hall-of-Famer and Derby-winning trainer Bill Mott said: “Give the highest point earner first pick in post position? Nah, that’s bull s**t. There must be some luck of the draw there. Maybe they should give the ones with the least points first choice. Maybe they need the handicap. But no, I wouldn’t like that either way.”

Changing the format may be a moot point, anyway, according to Churchill Down officials. 

Darren Roger, senior director of media services, was one of the architects of the points system that has been in place since the 2013 running. While the races involved and points appointed to each prep has been tweaked throughout the years, the draw has remained the same.

“Obviously it has been considered but what is more important to us is allow the ability to have also-eligibles,” Rogers said. “You can’t have both also-eligibles and selected post positions simultaneously. If not, you open yourself to a lawsuit.

“We’ve talked about it. We’ve done this for 10 years and we do deep dive every year looking at different ways to tweak the system. But we’d prefer to eliminate any possibility of litigation.

“For example, if I pick post position number 15, and a horse on the inside, the seven horse say, scratches over the course of the week, technically everybody would move in one and a horse would come in off the also-eligible list. If I picked number 20 and wanted number 20…it could open to a lawsuit.

“We prefer the traditional pill pull,” he said. 

The draw for the Kentucky Oaks (G1) and the Derby starts Monday at 2 p.m. It will be streamed live on and televised live in Louisville by NBC affiliate WAVE-3 and other various other local and national outlets.

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