In ad­di­tion to de­layed date, start­ing gate a new wrin­kle

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - BY BETH HAR­RIS

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Change is slow in com­ing to the Ken­tucky Derby. From be­ing run on the first Satur­day in May to the play­ing of ‘‘My Old Ken­tucky Home’’ since 1921, tra­di­tion rules Amer­ica’s most fa­mous race.

But cus­tom is get­ting a swift kick in 2020.

The coro­n­avirus pan­demic forced the 146th Derby to be pushed back to La­bor Day week­end, the first time since 1945 it won’t be held on its usual May date.

The 18-horse field will break from a new start­ing gate Satur­day, one to be used only for the Derby. It fits 20 horses, the typ­i­cal size of the field, which is slightly smaller this year.

Derby horses pre­vi­ously have been loaded into two gates, a main gate for the first 14 run­ners and an aux­il­iary gate for the rest. The track has used the aux­il­iary gate for the last 22 years.

‘‘In the horse world, any­thing new no one wants to try,’’ said starter Scott Jor­dan, who presses the but­ton that springs the gate si­mul­ta­ne­ously in the Derby. ‘‘They don’t like change.’’

Most U.S. race­tracks use 14-horse gates be­cause there are rarely more horses than that in a given race. Overseas, it’s com­mon to have fields of 20 or more.

The new Derby gate, de­signed by an Aus­tralian com­pany, was mod­i­fied slightly to make room for as­sis­tant starters in the gate with the horses af­ter load­ing. Their job is to keep the horse un­der con­trol and hold its head straight when the gate springs open. Overseas, it’s com­mon for a jockey to be alone in the gate and re­spon­si­ble for get­ting his horse off to a solid start.

‘‘The starter is so im­por­tant,’’ said trainer Bob Baf­fert, a five­time Derby win­ner.

The par­ti­tions be­tween the horses are nar­rower in the new gate, which puts the horses stand­ing closer to­gether.

‘‘When they leave there, if you break a step slow, there’ll be a lot of bounc­ing out of there,’’ Baf­fert said.

Tiz the Law, the early 3-5 Derby fa­vorite, and 5-1 sec­ond choice Honor A.P. have stood in the new gate this week to fa­mil­iar­ize them­selves with it. Other Derby run­ners will visit the gate be­fore Satur­day.

Per­haps the big­gest change with the new gate is that horses in the No. 1 and No. 20 posts would move in about 10 to 15 feet on each end, Jor­dan said. It’s the re­sult of the length of the gate be­ing shorter than the two other gates com­bined and also takes into ac­count the wide gap that ex­isted be­tween the two old gates.

With only 18 horses en­tered, how­ever, the No. 1 and No. 20 posts won’t be used.

Fin­nick the Fierce drew the No. 1 post. The chest­nut geld­ing is miss­ing his right eye, the re­sult of a con­gen­i­tal cataract, so he won’t see the rest of the field on his right.

Au­then­tic drew the No. 20 post, giv­ing him less ground to make up as the field leaves the gate.

‘‘For those two horses, it’s a real ad­van­tage,’’ Jor­dan said.


Ken­tucky Derby fa­vorite Tiz the Law (left) is led off the track af­ter a work­out Thurs­day at Churchill Downs.

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