05/20/2001 11:00PM

Trainers' logic turns inside-out


BALTIMORE - The selection of post positions for the Preakness will be televised Wednesday by ESPN, and although it is done in a made-for-TV format, it is unlikely to generate riveting drama. Few viewers will swoon when they hear a trainer announce, "We'll take Number 8."

Yet serious racing fans will watch the draw with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment. They will wonder how the savviest trainers and owners in the business can act so irrationally.

It is a racing truism that "the rail is the shortest way home," and inside post positions are especially advantageous in distance races. Horses often win after racing wide around one turn in a sprint race, but getting parked outside on two turns is usually a formula for defeat. The value of inside posts in two-turn races is confirmed by statistics for almost every stakes race and racetrack in America.

The most successful post position in the 127-year history of the Kentucky Derby is No. 1, which has accounted for 12 victories. When Monarchos won from post 16 this year, he was only the fifth horse to win with so wide a draw. Overall, horses in posts 16 and worse are a collective 5 for 126.

The supremacy of inside posts is demonstrated annually in day-to-day racing at Pimlico. The three inside post positions have been the most successful by far at the current meeting, while horses starting from post 9 and wider have a collective record of 0 for 19.

These facts are well known. Yet since trainers have been given the opportunity to choose their own post positions for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, they act as if toxic waste has been dumped along the rail at Churchill Downs and Pimlico.

Posts for the Derby and Preakness used to be chosen by a random draw, so trainers were not forced to think. To enliven the procedure for ESPN, a new system was adopted in 1999. A random draw was held to determine the order in which trainers choose their own posts. And almost unanimously trainers came to this conclusion: Inside posts are bad.

In the selection process for this year's Derby, the first post chosen was 9; the last three taken were 3, 2, and 1. Before the 2000 Preakness, almost nobody wanted to be in Number 1 on a track on which the rail historically has been an advantage. Why?

The explanation by trainers, inevitably, is that they want their horses to be "in the clear" rather than on the inside of a large field, where they risk getting blocked, bumped, or squeezed.

This rationale would have been valid in the 1999 Derby, when many horses on the inside did encounter trouble and Charismatic stayed in the clear to win from post 16. Nevertheless, horses with most styles in most races benefit from an inside trip.

Habitual front-runners usually try to get a clear lead on the rail, so they might as well start there, but trainers of these horses have irrationally chosen outside posts. At the Derby, Niall O'Callaghan picked post 14 for his one-dimensional speedster, Keats, letting all the other potential front-runners take positions inside him. With no chance to make the lead, Keats chased the leaders from the outside and wound up losing by more than 50 lengths.

Horses who come from off the pace usually try to save ground early, so they might as well start from inside posts, too. Yet with the inside three stalls available, John Ward took No. 16 for Monarchos, and Bob Baffert took post 17 for the favorite, Point Given.

The decision obviously worked out for Ward, because Monarchos wound up with a blanket of roses, but did he win because of his post or because he overcame it? Jockey Jorge Chavez's intention as soon as he broke from the gate was to maneuver to the rail. Skillfully, he saved ground much of the way and obtained a perfect trip. Wouldn't it have been easier to get there if Ward had picked an inside post in the first place?

After Baffert chose the outside stall for the favorite, he said, "If I had the [No. 1] hole with him, I'd be throwing up now. I'd much rather have the 17." But Point Given proceeded to demonstrate the drawbacks of being outside, in the clear. Jockey Gary Stevens apparently felt he had to get into a reasonable striking position after breaking from Number 17, and he hustled Point Given from the gate at the beginning of an unfortunate trip. Maybe it wasn't going to be Point Given's day in any event, but chasing the fastest pace in Derby history while running wide on both turns was certainly not a formula for success.

The post position selection process regularly produces classic examples of overthinking. A trainer imagines a disaster that might befall his horse and then chooses a post to avoid it. O'Callaghan said he took No. 14 for the Derby "because there is that space for two tires between the main gate and the auxiliary gate, and if the horse to the outside of him breaks inward, he would not break into him."

Baffert undoubtedly envisioned Point Given getting trapped on the rail at Churchill Downs. But trainers ought be guided by facts rather than what they imagine might happen. Perhaps a choice should be put to them as follows: "Post 1 has won more Derbies than any other. Post 17 has never won in the last 126 years. Which do you want?"

? 2001, The Washington Post