It's simple math
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
BALTIMORE -- When post positions were chosen Wednesday for the Preakness there were few surprises. Since 1998, when trainers and owners have been able to select their posts for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness based on a selection order determined by a random draw, the participants have flocked to the outside posts as if they provided guaranteed access to some sort of express lane. Conversely, the inside posts have been less popular than some diseases. Form held for this year's Preakness draw as no one took the one post until the sixth pick and trainer Bob Baffert chose post 10 for Senor Swinger with the third selection.
"I've won it from the outside a few times here," Baffert said. "(From the 10 post) I can only get hit from one side, so I can't get wiped out too bad like I did at the Derby (with Indian Express)."
Bob Baffert is a great trainer and a smart guy, but he must have flunked basic geometry in grade school. In fact, a lot of trainers must have struggled when it came to that subject. Have they forgotten? The further you travel, the longer it takes to get somewhere.
It's clear what the logic has been when outside posts were chosen. Owners and trainers are hoping to avoid traffic problems, believing there is less of a chance of their horse getting sandwiched or being forced to steady if they are racing outside of other horses.
But in doing so they have chosen to ignore what can be a costly tradeoff. In hopes of getting a clean trip, many trainers have all but guaranteed that their horses will race wide on the turns and lose valuable ground on rivals taking the inside paths. Many times, that can be the difference between winning and losing. A horse can stay out of trouble every step of the way, but is it really worth it when he loses three or four lengths on the turns in the process?
Maybe Bobby Frankel wants to rethink the decisions he made when it came time to choose Empire Maker's post for the Kentucky Derby. Frankel had the seventh pick at the Derby draw and chose post 12 for Empire Maker, selecting it over the 1, 3, 4, 5, 9 and 11 posts, which were all still available.
Though Jerry Bailey is as good as there is when it comes to working out of a good trip for a mount, he could never get anywhere near the rail aboard Empire Maker from his outside post. Empire Maker was four wide on the first turn and three wide on the second before finishing second, 1 3/4 lengths back. Meanwhile, Funny Cide was in the one path on the first turn and the two path on the second.
Since the Derby, Frankel has reasoned that the wide trip cost him, and he's right. Few understand such issues better than Jerry Brown, the operator of Thoro-Graph, a speed figure service that takes ground loss into account when calculating its numbers. On the Thoro-Graph sheets, Empire Maker got a significantly better speed figure than Funny Cide did in the Kentucky Derby, the reason being that he had to run further because he raced on the outside on the turns. Brown believes that for every path removed from the rail a horse races on the turns it loses one length. Based on that theory, Empire Maker lost 3 1/2 lengths to Funny Cide on the turns, more than the margin of victory.
"Sometimes, I don't know what these guys are thinking," Brown said. "Frankel and (Jerry) Bailey must have thought they had much the best horse and decided they could give up ground and still win it. But they couldn't. If you just pay attention to geometry, you have to know that you're going to lose ground on the outside."
At a track notorious for its tight turns, post positions may be even more important at Pimlico than they are at Churchill Downs. But Wayne Lukas apparently didn't think so last year when he chose post 12 with Proud Citizen. With the 11th out of 13 picks, Lukas did not have many choices, but, amazingly, took the 12 post over the 1, which was available when he made his selection.
It was no surprise that Proud Citizen had a terrible trip before finishing third. Here's how the chart footnote read: "Proud Citizen lost ground while racing five wide for a good portion of the opening six furlongs, made a run outside of the winner to loom boldly in mid stretch but could not sustain his bid."
When asked a year later about Proud Citizen's post, Lukas said, "I got burned." Still, he hasn't completely been sold on the inside posts. With the first pick at the Preakness draw, he chose post five for Ten Cents A Shine. His other horse, Scrimshaw, wound up with two post after Lukas picked seventh.
Funny Cide drew post 10 for the Preakness, which was the only post left when trainer Barclay Tagg made his pick. The post won't help, but Funny Cide has got tactical speed and a rider in Jose Santos who seems to know the importance of saving ground. It's easy to envision him working out a winning trip from that spot. If so, it may only further the belief that the outside is the place to be. Some myths are not easy to shatter.