04/04/2012 2:48PM

Handicapping the earnings cap

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When handicapping harness races you will quickly notice the wide-ranging conditions of each race. Outside of straight claiming races and open events, most races will be based on the money won by each horse over a period of time. The majority of tracks use the standard of money won over each horse’s last four to six starts. This works nicely because standardbreds race about 2.5 times per month, which means recent activity is a good indicator of form and current ability.

One of the trickier aspects of harness conditions are the earnings caps. Often you will find a condition that reads, “Non-winners of $5,000 in last 6 starts; Horses which earned more than $30,000 in 2012 are ineligible.” There are two intricate details you need to pay attention to here. 1) Is there an earnings cap? 2) What is the listed year of the earnings cap?

One purpose of the earnings cap is to protect lower-level horses from having to face classy horses which have fallen on hard times. It also serves the dual purpose of keeping a good horse from sandbagging against better company to get some free rides versus easier competition and avoids the possibility of 1-5 shots in multiple races because quality horses were allowed to drop way down in class.

I bring up the earnings cap because April is typically the month where tracks change their earnings caps from total earnings in 2011-2012 to just 2012. Monticello Raceway has already made the switch and Yonkers Raceway will change starting with races contested on April 9. Other tracks will certainly be following suit in the coming weeks.

As these caps change you will notice many horses having the opportunity to take large drops in class. At Yonkers you will notice horses that were competing at the non-winners of $18,000 in last 6 starts level dropping to the non-winners of $5,000 in last 6 condition. Most of these class droppers will go to post as prohibitive favorites. The question is, do we bet on them?

A good rule of thumb is to check the previous two past performance lines for signs of hidden form. Did the horse keep up nicely with the tougher competition?  It does not matter if the horse finished seventh and lost by eight lengths. The key is whether the horse stayed with the pack and finished up with decent pace or trot. Horses with this pattern will likely perk up nicely on the class drop.

The horses to avoid are the ones which suck along for the first half or three quarters of the mile and tire badly in the stretch. These horses will likely need a start or two at the reduced level before finding their form.

One last word of advice . . . give extra consideration to droppers which hail from strong barns. Trainers that win at a high rate are much more likely to have their horses charged up and ready to fire immediately. They will likely come with a short price, though.

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