Epicenter, Mo Donegal test fairness of 20-horse Derby gate

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In 2020, Churchill Downs’ new 20-stall starting gate replaced the split starting gate the track used previously. The new gate will be put to its first serious test in Saturday’s 148th Kentucky Derby.

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Previewing the 2022 Kentucky Derby

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Starting with the 2020 Kentucky Derby ⁠— a coronavirus-delayed race that occurred in September of that year ⁠— the beginning of the Run for the Roses took on a new look.

The 2020 event saw the debut of a custom-made, 65-foot starting gate specifically designed for the Kentucky Derby.

The new gate replaced the previous practice (dating back to 1942) of using two gates for the Derby, a main gate that held the first 14 horses and an auxiliary gate that held the remaining horses in the field if needed.

The two-gate system often put horses drawn into certain post positions at a disadvantage: Draw too close to the rail and you were forced to veer to the right to avoid the rail after leaving the gate. Draw on the outside of the main gate or the interior of the auxiliary gate, and you had to contend with a wide gap separating the gates.

“With the old gate it was tricky, you certainly didn’t want to be in the one hole, or the two or the three, unless you were extremely fast,” said jockey Mike Smith, who will be riding Taiba in his record 28th Kentucky Derby on Saturday. “This new gate it makes it a whole lot different. I think it plays much fairer for the horses that have drawn down to the inside and the horses who’ve drawn to the extreme outside. . . . It gives everybody a fairer shot.”

This weekend will mark the new gate’s biggest test yet, with regard to fairness for horses near the rail.

Limited speed and talent were drawn in the inside post positions for the 2020 and 2021 races.

In 2020, the horse in the No. 1 post, Finnick the Fierce, scratched. Max Player (No. 2 post, 19-1 closing odds) ran fifth and Enforceable (No. 3 post, 22-1 closing odds) finished in seventh.

In 2021, Known Agenda (No. 1 post, 6-1 morning-line odds) finished eighth, Like The King (No. 2 post, 50-1 morning-line odds) finished 11th and Brooklyn Strong (No. 3 post, 30-1 morning-line odds) finished 14th.

Neither of those two races featured the potential Derby-winning talent that will be in the inside posts on Saturday.

The No. 1 post is occupied by Mo Donegal, trained by Todd Pletcher and to be ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr.

With morning-line odds of 10-1 set Monday following the post-position draw, Mo Donegal already has high-level experience winning from the rail.

Mo Donegal’s last race was a win from post position No. 1 in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York in early April.

The No. 3 post is occupied by Epicenter, trained by Steve Asmussen and set to be ridden by Joel Rosario with morning-line odds of 7-2. Many thought Epicenter would be the morning-line favorite following Monday’s draw, and owner Ron Winchell said his preferred post position for the race was No. 9.

“I think the further you are inside, the more important the first step is, because of the natural chain reaction of somebody being where you hope to be,” Asmussen said on a video call with reporters Tuesday.

Happy Jack is in the No. 2 post for this year’s Derby, but isn’t expected to be a factor with morning-line odds set at 30-1.

But specifically for Mo Donegal and Epicenter, how much will the 20-horse gate aid their bids to become the first horse from No. 1 post since 1986 (Ferdinand) or from the No. 3 post since 1998 (Real Quiet) to win the Kentucky Derby?

“I think the new 20-horse gate that Churchill’s acquired for the Kentucky Derby has leveled the playing field as much as you possibly can in a 20-horse field,” Asmussen said. “There’s no varying distance between horses.”

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Before 2020, Kentucky Derby horses started from a main gate and an auxiliary gate, which many times put several horses at a disadvantage. Katie Decker

“It used to be the number one, two and even possibly you could say the three spot, was at a significant disadvantage coming into the turn because you had the turn that kind of popped in front of you. I think the one-gate system kind of eliminates that part,” Winchell added Tuesday. “Overall, the new gate being one big gate instead of two gates has definitely eliminated some of the disadvantages that I think we saw in the previous gate system.”

As Winchell alludes to, there are still some drawbacks that come with the 20-horse gate.

Designed by Australian company Steriline Racing, the interior of the stalls in the gate are wider than the usual gate used at Churchill Downs, but the dividers between the stalls are narrower.

Winchell cited one of his past horses, Midnight Bourbon, who finished fifth in the 2021 Derby from post position No. 10, when explaining how larger horses may scrape the sides of the gate when exiting, possibly leading to a slow start.

Of course, other factors remain at play beyond starting spots and the type of gate used.

“You have no control over how 20 3-year old (horses) will handle this volume of crowd for the first time,” Asmussen said. “None of them have obviously been in a race that’s had that many runners in it.”

Any measure taken to limit variance in the Derby means the horses and jockeys on the track will have more of a say in the end result.

“I’ve sat through a few (post-position draws) before the Derby and Breeders’ Cups,” said Chad Brown, trainer of 3-1 morning-line favorite Zandon, who was assigned post position No. 10. “You just put so much work in, and sometimes your race can be won or lost just with that draw.”

This story was originally published May 6, 2022 6:00 AM.

Cameron Drummond works as a sports reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader with a focus on the University of Kentucky women’s basketball program, in addition to other college, high school and professional sports in the area. Drummond is a first-generation American who was born and raised in Texas, before graduating from Indiana University in 2020. He is a fluent Spanish speaker who previously worked as a community news reporter for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper in Austin, Texas.