<
>

Gate to nowhere

One thing car racing does right is hand its top qualifier the best starting spot, row one on the inside.

Horse racing gives its top qualifier a room, a wink and a prayer.

Only a Churchill Downs racing executive can beat American Pharoah and Dortmund by sticking either of them in the number one gate spot at the post position draw at around noon on the Wednesday before the race.

The post position draw at the Derby resembles a barroom game, roll the dice for the tab, high total drinks free. Make it a triple, bartender, here come the cards with horse names on them. Somebody must have had dibs on pitching pennies at cracks on the sidewalk, so King Karma will help decide the winner of the Derby. Robots could fill the Derby gate. There's no human touch required. Horses are placed in gates by random draw, all unlucky post position sales are final.

The rail at Churchill Downs -- the number one gate at the Derby -- has been like the bullpen at Wrigley Field. You didn't want to be there. Draw the one, you'll be the first to get flowers; of condolences.

The number one gate position shouldn't be as bad as it is. It hasn't won the Derby since the late eighties. But it's the shortest way around. Numbers 1, 4, 5, 8 and 10 are the winningest posts in Derby history. But of late, with a lack of former sprinters stretching out to a mile and a quarter, the start of the race seems to happen in slow motion, as average starters on the rail seem most concerned with staying upright in the face of an avalanche of 19 horses, hoofs on one side, splinters on the other.

When the number one gate position is drawn and a horse's name and colors are put in that square, lights flicker. Curtains rustle. A quick chill spreads across the room. Somebody call Ghost Busters.

What's in the bags beside the seats of trainers and owners, lucky charms?

Derby gate draws, with the number one still in play, is the most exciting two seconds in sports.

The rail at any track, at any distance, should be the garden spot, not no man's or horse's land.

The strategy from the rail at a mile and a quarter at Churchill seems simple enough. Get out of there. Pretend you're Winning Colors and get the lead and see how that works out. The gate opens to open space, the turn for home. The inside rail appears to be a hurdle waiting for a steeplechaser. Horses often break for open space. It's why horses in the outside gate position in quarter horse races often seem to be bolting for the beer stand. It's why the rail at the Derby gets claustrophobic quickly for horses without speed. Plan B from the rail at the Derby is to let the cavalry go, settle into the middle of the field, duck dirt, and hope something opens up later. Plan C is to get them next time.

The ideal post position appears to have evolved into a spot in the middle of the gate rack, with your chief competitor to the inside, so you can see what to dodge, whom to follow. American Pharoah and Dortmund would each probably choose to be one spot outside the other.

But choosing has nothing to with this. Racing luck begins three days before the gate opens. The best qualifier could enter the gate in the worst spot. A blind luck Kentucky Derby draw make baseball's all-star policy of giving the home field World Series advantage to the winner of a practice game seem downright scientific.

Would that Penn and Teller drew cards for Bob Baffert's big two the Wednesday before.