03/15/2005 1:00AM

Post-position bias hurting outsiders

The short run from the start to the first turn in 1 1/8-mile races puts horses in outside posts at a disadvantage.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Rick Violette scratched Dearest Mon from the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes rather than break from post position 9, opting instead to run in an allowance race.

Breaking from an outside post at Gulfstream Park, even in only an eight-horse field, is probably what led to High Fly's lone career loss, a third-place finish as the 3-5 favorite in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes, most observers believe.

The Fountain of Youth and the Holy Bull were both run at 1 1/8 miles. The $1 million Florida Derby on April 2, the meet's cornerstone race and a key prep on the Kentucky Derby trail, will be run at the same distance, which deeply concerns horsemen who face the possibility of drawing an outside post in what figures to be a full field.

In years past, races at 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream began midway on the stretch and left plenty of distance for horses drawn even on the extreme outside to secure position before reaching the first turn. But when track owner Magna Entertainment Corp. decided to widen the turf course and rebuild the main track after the 2004 meeting, it was forced to have a nine-furlong dirt course, which eliminated the possibility of running races at 1 1/16 miles and created a short run to the first turn in 1 1/8-mile races.

According to Gulfstream's president and general manager, Scott Savin, the run from the starting gate to the start of the clubhouse turn in 1 1/8-mile races is 380 feet.

Statistics show that horses breaking from inside posts enjoyed a strong advantage at Gulfstream so far this winter. Twenty-three of the first 37 races run at a 1 1/8 miles - 62 percent - were won by horses breaking from post positions 1 or 2. Only nine winners out of 198 starters broke from posts 4 and beyond (4.5 percent), and only 2 of 59 starters (3.3 percent) have won out of posts 8 through 12.

"It's hard enough winning races without going into a race knowing that from one of the outside posts you have significantly less chance of winning than horses breaking inside of you," Violette said. "Which is why I decided to scratch Dearest Mon from the Fountain of Youth rather than take the chance of possibly wasting a race."

Both Nick Zito, who is pointing High Fly and Noble Causeway to the Grade 1 Florida Derby, and Todd Pletcher, whose Bandini is also scheduled to run in that race, agree with Violette.

"It's a foregone conclusion that you just don't want to draw an outside post in one-mile-and-one-eighth races here," said Zito. "Look what happened to In the Gold when she broke from the outside in post 6 in the Bonnie Miss. She wound up getting fanned wide around the first turn, had to go around the whole field on the second turn, and as a result she just got beat."

Bandini broke from post 7, one stall outside of High Fly, and was parked three wide the entire trip when he ran second in the Fountain of Youth.

"Obviously, it's a difficult situation for any horse drawing outside in these races - and, unfortunately, it's a situation that's probably too late to address now," said Pletcher. "It should have been addressed before they decided to build a mile-and-one-eighth racetrack, which not only created the problem of a short run to the first turn but also eliminated the option of running young horses a mile and one-sixteenth before stretching them out to a mile and one-eighth - which, particularly at this meet, where so many of us are trying to develop 3-year-olds, is extremely important."

One potential solution, which has been suggested by some horsemen, would be to create a second finish line, like the one at Keeneland, so that nine-furlong races could start closer to midstretch. But as Pletcher pointed out, there is a problem with that scenario, too.

"The stretch is short enough here as it is," he said. "If they finished the races near the sixteenth pole, the horses would be right on top of the wire as soon as they came out of the turn."

Savin agreed that a second finish line is not a viable option, but said he would look into the situation further after the meet is over.

"Nobody likes being hung in an outside post in two-turn races anywhere," he said. "And I think people are making a little more out of the situation here than there really is. But that doesn't mean I won't consider other options if I feel they are warranted.

"I'm a statistical nut, so I'll break down all the nine-furlong races after the meet is over and see if this needs to be addressed further."

The big question now is whether such a prestigious race as the Florida Derby will be affected because of what appears to be an obvious post-position bias.

Neither Zito, nor Pletcher, nor any other trainer with a potential starter in the Florida Derby would comment on what action he might take if he were to draw outside in the race. But surely the connections of all the major contenders will be a little more anxious than usual at this year's post-position draw.