06/20/2013 10:42AM

Harness Racing: Horsemen weigh in on betting 2-year-olds


The 2-year-olds are coming! The 2-year-olds are coming!

Each June in harness racing, baby races, which are essentially qualifiers for 2-year-olds, are offered at tracks across the country. By the middle of the month, rookie pacers and trotters can be seen in pari-mutuel races.

While the injection of fresh horses into the population will ultimately increase field size and ensure the prosperity of the sport, wagering on 2-year-olds with only a qualifier or two on their past performance lines can be hazardous to ones’ wallet. There are some keys, however, to consider when trying your luck with inexperienced horses.

I always preach to watch the replays of races in order to get a first-hand opinion of any horse. With baby races, the need to pay close attention is paramount.

“I have always liked to bet on 2-year-olds, but it is imperative that you see the baby races,” said Bob Marks, Public Relations guru from Perretti Farms. “You have to see what they look like. You should also read what the chart caller writes, because a 2yo is going to give you everything they got but you have to know exactly how good they looked doing it. Once they (the drivers) are going to the whip, that is all the horse has got.” 

Every trainer and driver is looking for something different when they qualify a 2-year-old for the first time. But a common theme is to have their horses finish strong.

“You want it to be a good experience for them,” said driver John Campbell.” You don't want them to get tired or put them in a position where they will be tired in the stretch. You are looking for them to get experience behind the gate and to see how they act behind the gate, because some horses can be petrified of it and others it doesn't bother at all. “

“I think the biggest thing with any of them when the come up here the first time is manners; that they have a nice positive start the first time in a baby race,” said trainer Tony Alagna. “Of course you want them to do what you think they are as far as how they've trained all along, but you want your trotting colts to come up here and not make a mistake. You want their manners behind the gate to be good. You want them to finish up their mile with good momentum through the wire. You don't want to see your babies tired and their last eighth being their slowest.”

“Mainly what I want to see is a good last eighth of a mile; make them finish and pass horses,” said driver Tim Tetrick. “I'm also looking for their sensibility; if they are smart and have a good mouth.”

And the plan changes from start to start. The first start is about a clean and safe trip, but then it gets more complex.

“It is all building blocks,” said Alagna. “You take whatever they did the first time and you add on to it. If the horse was a little "funny" behind the gate the first time, you make some adjustments so he improves behind the gate. You hope you go forward every time you come up here.”

Of course, many of the same details the trainers and drivers are looking for become pertinent for bettors who are looking for clues when the 2-year-olds are ready for “real” races.

“Watch the drivers and how much they are urging them,” said Campbell. “If a guy is coming through the stretch and the driver is sitting comfortably while the horse is gaining ground, that is a good sign. You want to see how easy the horse is finishing the last quarter.”

“I think by the second baby race, if you see some horse closing really well,” said trainer/driver Ray Schnittker on what to look for when considering 2-year-olds to bet. “If something is not closing they are probably not really live.”

“Watch for the last quarter; horses that show finishing up their miles well,” said Alagna. “Horses that show their speed is there and they are doing their best work by the wire. A colt that I was impressed with was one sent out by Ray Schnittker - a brother to Well Said (So Surreal) - because he went through the wire like you are looking for; the last eighth he was in full flight.”

Often handicapping involves more than just watching the horses. You have to know the trainers and drivers as well. Some drivers are more aggressive in the morning qualifying sessions as well as during pari-mutuel action. Others are looking for an easy mile and will settle in rather than leave off the gate. Similarly, there are trainers that like to ease their horses up to speed and others that send a horse ready for their first baby race.

“You have to know the drivers’ mentalities and the way they qualify horses,” said Tetrick. “Myself, John (Campbell) and Brian (Sears), we qualify a lot different than some other guys do, so you kind of have to watch and learn how we do it. 

“Trainer patterns are important in playing 2-year-olds,” said Marks. “Some, like (Jimmy) Takter and  Ray (Schnittker) come out ready. Others may need a start or two; (Brett) Pelling was notorious for that.  In addition, one should know what’s on the immediate horizon, as those prepping for an upcoming stake may not be over exerted.”

Watching the races is an art that can often lead to different interpretations. One person’s Picasso is another man’s junk. Sometimes the hints at greatness in a horse require a close eye on those that do not appear to be contenders.

“Watch for the sleepers,” said Tetrick. “Watch for horses that make very subtle moves at the end of the mile and makes up ground.”

Regardless of the information gathered watching races and replays, sometimes horses simply don’t respond to new surroundings. A horse may qualify in the morning and not take to being behind the gate in a pari-mutuel race at night. It is always a good idea to watch the post parade or warm-ups to see how the horse looks that night. Is he acting differently than the last time you saw him?

There is no manual for wagering on 2-year-old races. You simply gather as much information as possible and head for the windows. Odds are if you do your homework, you will be a few steps ahead of a good portion of the betting public.

DRF at the Meadowlands

I just wanted to take a moment to thank Jeff Gural and the staff at the Meadowlands for hosting a Daily Racing Form race at the Meadowlands on Friday (June 21).

DRF CEO John Hartig, along with DRF Harness’ Matt Rose, PJ Iovino and myself will go one mile in double-seated jog carts with some of the top drivers at the track at our side for coaching. The winner will get to donate $1,000 (courtesy of the Meadowlands) to the charity of our choice.

Thanks in advance to the drivers who will assist and trainers Mike Posner and Vincent Fusco for supplying the horses.

The marquee event for the off-the-card program will take place between races two and three. Feel free to come out to the track and cheer me on or critique my driving.