05/16/2012 4:17PM

Harness drivers do not know it all


One of the key handicapping angles that Standardbred bettors love is the “driver change” angle. However, I find that the basic principles behind the angle are often misused and players jump at changes that are irrelevant and miss out on opportunities that require maximum monetary output.

Drivers often have difficult choices and it can be nerve-racking to be stuck between two horses while forced to choose.

“I try to take the best horse most of the time,” said driver Brian Sears, one of the leading drivers in North America. “There are times when it is constantly on your mind; like when you have a big decision on a top horse. I try to make the best educated guess that I can.”

Judging by his yearly win rate, Sears tends to “guess” right more often than not. When he picks a horse people take notice, but should we blindly follow Sears’ decisions? Let’s take a look at the types of driver changes that you may run into on a daily basis and how to decode the hidden meaning behind the choice.

Parallel switch: This is when a driver is replaced by another driver of equal or near-equal talent.

To use an example, a change of this nature would be Sears being replaced by David Miller, or Jordan Stratton taking over for Jason Bartlett. Some may view these changes as positive or negative, but for the most part these drivers are pretty close on the talent spectrum.

The main advantage when dealing with this type of driver change involves style. If a horse has a more patient driver and gets a switch to someone who tends to be more aggressive, that could wake a horse up. And, of course, there are times when a horse that has been driven by the same driver week after week will respond to a new set of hands.

One step down: Occurs when a top or good driver is replaced by a competent yet non-star driver; or vice-versa.

Without bringing up names and getting any drivers upset. Let’s say this category would be going from an 18-30 % driver to a 6 to 12 % guy. That criterion is pretty general and doesn’t take into account a change from Sears (22%) to John Campbell (6%), which falls into the guidelines but hardly represents a major negative, but you get the idea.

While the talent level of the drivers in this category may not be worlds apart, there are advantages to having the better reinsman. Although the lower level driver is capable, he is unlikely to get the respect on the track that a top driver may get. When George Brennan leaves the gate at Yonkers Raceway, holes easily open up for him to find a tuck along the pylons. When “Joe 5% win-rate” leaves, he gets parked the mile.

Major switch: Involves a top driver being replaced by an inexperienced or low percentage pilot.

These are the trickiest of the categories listed above. While Sears is more talented and seems likely to get more out of a horse than when a trainer or owner is in the bike, sometimes the horse is just not that good. The bottom line is horsepower. It is certainly a positive sign when a top driver gets in the bike, but ask yourself, “Does this horse have ability or am I just hoping the new driver will bring the magic?”

Most major driver changes will equate to one to two seconds. That means that the horse will pick up his game by 5 to 10 lengths. If the horse getting a major driver switch can feasibly beat his competition with that level of improvement, then the driver change means something. Otherwise, move on.

Driver Choice: Perhaps the number one driver change angle I see people blindly jump on is driver choice. This is when a driver is listed to handle multiple horses at the time the original entries are released and he has to make a decision on which horse he will choose.

Sometimes the driver is clearly picking the best horse but just as often there may be an underlying reason for the choice.

Sears listed breeding, how the horse feels, how well the horse is gaited, whether the horse is manageable, and any bad habits the horse may have as deciding factors for him when making a choice.

While Sears is more of a true catch-driver without serious ties to one particular barn, others, like Yannick Gingras, drive exclusively for one barn (Ron Burke Stable). At Yonkers, Brennan drives every horse for trainer Lou Pena. If Pena is not in the race, he gives preference to Gilbert Garcia-Hererra.

Dealing mostly with stakes horses, perhaps the driver made a prior commitment to a horse. Sometimes a driver will choose off the better-quality horse now to drive the superior horse as the season progresses.

“It is very hard this time of year (spring),” said Sears, who will have to make decisions now on which top young horses to drive going forward. “I have to take off of plenty of top horses I like, but you have to let it go and not dwell on it.”

How many times has someone uttered, “If the driver picked the horse than he knows what he is doing.” Well, drivers are not always right. Some of them are good handicappers, but just as many simply make mistakes and pick the wrong horse.

The above said, you will often read “Sears’ choice” in my Meadowlands analysis. There is a time and a place to use the driver choice angle. That time is when a driver has a choice between horses you feel are close in ability on paper. If I can’t decide between two horses I will pick the one that the driver chose.

But even when a driver makes all the right choices, there are still no guarantees.

“Whenever you are trying to win a race, so many things have to go right,” concluded Sears.

No strategy in this Pick Four

Guaranteed wagers are wonderful. They provide a confidence to bettors that the pool they are wagering into will have some muscle. The USTA has done a great job getting involved on the wagering side to promote gambling, which is the lifeblood of the sport.

Unfortunately, at times, tracks have dropped the ball when it comes to carding competitive races during these guaranteed wagers. A good example occurred on May 15 at Yonkers Raceway. The program featured four races with odds-on favorites (even money or lower) on the 11-race card and three of those four were placed as part of the pick four. I can give the racing office a pass for race nine, where American GI paid $3.70 to win and wasn’t a clear-cut odds-on horse on paper. But Real Mystical (race 7) and Corey Road (race 10) were two of the most obvious 1-5 shots on paper that you will find.

So as not to pick on just one track, Harrah’s Philadelphia carded 14-races on May 16 and two of the pick four races contained obvious favorites that were a lock to go off at 3-5 or lower (they paid $2.40 and $2.60).

Is it so hard to pick out four close-knit races for the guaranteed pick four races? Though, maybe it doesn’t matter at Yonkers because the NY Racing and Wagering Board does not allow the track to have a carryover in the pick four. Big mistake!

A good portion of the wagering gains at Balmoral Park has been due to the guaranteed wagers and carryover pools. A $20k guaranteed pool is nice, but a $15,000 carryover and a $50,000 guaranteed pool the following day is what really spurs interest.

Maybe one day Ney York can get it right.