05/16/2006 12:00AM

Preference for outside posts misguided


WASHINGTON - When ESPN telecasts the selection of post positions for the Preakness on Wednesday, the show will illustrate the existence of a mass delusion within the Thoroughbred sport. It is a delusion that has already proved costly to the nation's second-best 3-year-old, Brother Derek.

Under the made-for-TV procedure used for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, trainers get to choose their own post positions. A random draw determines the order in which they make their selections.

The choice ought to be a no-brainer. It is a racing truism that "the rail is the shortest way home," and a mountain of statistical evidence proves that outside post positions are undesirable in races run around two turns. At Pimlico, horseplayers have recognized for decades that saving ground on the turns is vital. At Churchill Downs, horses breaking from posts 17 and wider have a collective 2-for-92 record in the Derby.

Yet trainers involved in the Triple Crown races almost unanimously believe that inside posts are potentially disastrous. They envision their horses getting caught in heavy traffic near the rail, and prefer the prospect of being in the clear after breaking from a wide post.

Perhaps post positions will be irrelevant in Saturday's Preakness, with its anticipated small field. But they definitely mattered at Churchill Downs - and they didn't help horses on the outside. Anyone handicapping the Preakness has to consider the way posts and racing luck affected the outcome of the Derby.

At the Derby post-position draw, the connections of two contenders - Lawyer Ron and Brother Derek - were among the last to choose their places in the starting gate. When Lawyer Ron's turn came, the available posts were 1, 3, 17, 18, 19, and 20. Trainer Bob Holthus took 17, explaining, "I didn't want to be trapped down inside." Dan Hendricks followed him and, shunning the available inside posts, chose No. 18 for Brother Derek. He didn't want Brother Derek to break near two other speed horses; instead, he envisioned his colt sitting outside the leaders and stalking them.

"We want to be out where it's a little clearer," Hendricks said.

Of course, horses can get into difficult trips because of inside posts. (In the 1999 Derby, horses near the rail were caught in a first-turn traffic jam, and the top two finishers came from posts 16 and 18.) But in most cases, trainers' nightmare scenarios involving inside posts don't materialize. A horse is much more likely to be hindered by starting from an outside post and racing wide, as Brother Derek did. His trip was so difficult that some bettors will conclude that he can turn the tables on the victorious Barbaro when they face each other again in the Preakness.

After breaking from post 18, jockey Alex Solis kept looking to find a way to drop toward the inside and save ground before he reached the first turn. He couldn't do it; Brother Derek was parked four wide all the way around the turn. It is a rough rule of thumb that a runner loses one length around a turn for every horse-width that he is removed from the rail. Brother Derek was already in the process of losing the Derby.

On the backstretch, Solis was still parked wide; several horses launched moves that left Brother Derek with an even greater mass of horseflesh between him and the rail. As he rounded the final turn at Churchill, he was eight, nine, 10 horses wide - take your pick. After such a difficult trip, Brother Derek should have faded into oblivion. Yet he accelerated in the stretch and managed to finish in a dead heat for fourth.

"After watching the race over and over, I can do nothing but feel good about him," Hendricks said. "He was super. You could see it was his best race."

The Thoro-Graph speed figure ratings incorporate ground loss into their calculations, and they attempt to assess exactly how wide a horse raced on the turns. According to Thoro-Graph founder Jerry Brown, Brother Derek was 4 1/2 horses wide on the first turn and 6 1/2 wide on the second turn - compared with 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 for Barbaro. If one path on a turn equals one length, Brother Derek traveled five lengths farther than the winner - not enough to account for his 9 1/2-length loss. Not all speed handicappers would concur with Brown's figures, which indicate that Brother Derek could have won the majority of Kentucky Derbies over the last two decades, but the performance was certainly an excellent one. Brother Derek should have finished second in the Derby; if he had started from an inside post, he probably would have done so.

With the benefit of hindsight, would his trainer have picked a different post position?

"Definitely," Hendricks said.

Trainers in future Triple Crown races should heed the lesson of Brother Derek when they start thinking that they would like their horses to be wide and in the clear.

(c) 2006, The Washington Post