11/28/2012 4:03PM

December Wagering Conundrum


We will be flipping the calendar to December in the coming days. In Harness Racing, December is the time when multiple tracks across the country shut down their live racing operation from anywhere between two weeks and three months.

Pocono Downs is already closed for the winter, with Harrah’s Philadelphia, Saratoga, Freehold, Yonkers and others all wrapping up their 2012 seasons in the second and third weeks of the month.

For the handicapper, the mass closures mean fewer opportunities and more variables.

There will be days in December and January where the daytime choices will be nonexistent. Monticello Raceway may be the only daylight track racing and the night time opportunities could be limited to Northfield and Balmoral Park. There is nothing wrong with those options, but when the product is limited optimum wagering opportunities are few and far between.

The other issue with a decrease in the number of available betting choices is when you are forced to exit your comfort zone. If you are familiar with the driving colony and trainers at Yonkers, good luck trying to find most of them from December 22 until the track re-opens sometime in January. A few will be at Monticello or at the Meadowlands, but you will certainly have to familiarize yourself with some new trainers and drivers in order to be successful.

When it comes to choosing a substitute track, I would always try to stick as close to the vest as possible. Meaning if you usually play Yonkers, go with Monticello or the Meadowlands. Monticello will offer you a half-mile track that will play somewhat similar to Yonkers. Meadowlands will give you a similar driving and training colony. If you like Harrah’s Philly, try The Meadows, which is also a five-eighths oval.

The other major change which goes hand and hand with the December closures is a plethora of shippers. When you bet the same track week in and week out, you become accustomed to the stock and the class at which each horse belongs. You may even pay enough attention to note how each horse looks on the track each week so you can look for improvements.

In a few weeks you will have horses shipping in from everywhere. Any race could contain a handful of shippers during the final week of December and opening week of January. How do we decipher which horses are well spotted and which are in over their heads?

Perhaps the easiest way is to check out the DRF Harness Eye past performances and look at the “EYE” Rating column. This number already takes into account each horse’s speed and the track size and speed rating for each participant. If a horse coming in from Yonkers has a 90 rating, one from Harrah’s Philly has a 90 rating and one from Monticello has a 90 rating, they all put in a similar effort in their previous start. It is that simple.

Digging deeper, read the conditions carefully and check to see how each horse fits in the race. Many horses will not be able to ship from Pocono, Yonkers or Harrah’s Philly into a track like Monticello because of the high purses offered at those slot-infused tracks and the earnings caps in place at Monticello. That goes for The Meadows and Northfield as well. A horse coming in from The Meadows will likely have a good amount of money on their résumé and will have a hard time finding a good spot at Northfield.

A horse may have been in tougher company at their previous track but might not be able to handle tighter turns or the new surface. A track like Monticello simply plays nothing like Pocono, which is one of the fastest tracks in the country.

So, what are we looking for to make some money during this transitional period?

Trainer and Driver Changes

Often enough a trainer will head south for the winter when their home track closes and a new trainer will take over. This is often a good betting angle if the change is positive or lateral.

Many drivers elect to take vacation time during December and January. Many times any driver switch can bring new results.

Previous experience

Tracks closing during December is hardly a new thing. Many times a horse which won during this period last year will come back and win again. I like to check each horse’s performance at the current track over the last couple of years to see if they had some success. A record of 3-2-0-1 is a good sign that a horse may have shown up during downtime at his track and picked up some money.

Beware underlays

Inevitably horses will ship in from other tracks with some back class and be bet heavily even though they lack form or experience on that size track. Avoid those horses! The better opportunities are when a horse with class is shipping in and goes off at a nice mutuel because he is facing a sharp hometown horse.

I’ll be the first to admit that you will need to work harder to make money from December 23 to about mid-January. It will take plenty of patience. If you lack that quality, watch but don’t wager. Build a bankroll and come out firing in a few weeks.


[DRF HARNESS: Sign Up for the FREE DRF Harness Newsletter Today!]