01/09/2014 1:00PM

Meadowlands thoughts for the New Year

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Awakening from my December slumber, there is so much to write about. Let's focus on all things Meadowlands this time around, since let's face it, they are the straw that stirs the harness racing world.

The racing has been competitive yet strange since the start of the new meet on the flip side of the track. Any handicapper will look for patterns and the races at the Meadowlands simply aren’t providing much in the way of consistent occurrences. On some nights, mostly back in November and early December, the track started as speed-favoring and switched to a tiring track with a closers bias. Recently the surface seems more like a speedway, with unexplainable final times. Sweet Justice is a nice young trotter, but a 1:51 2/5 mile when it is 15 degrees outside seems like a head-scratcher. 

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I've heard two hypotheses on the Meadowlands track configuration that deserve at least a mention. First, that somehow the track distance is now less than one mile in circumference. As someone who watched the new grandstand erected step by step, I have a hard time with this theory. Is it possible that when the track crew re-banked the turns that the distance was shortened? Yeah, anything is possible. But even if the distance was a few feet short of one mile, that would hardly account for a major difference. Maybe horses would gain a length or two (1/5 to 2/5 of a second), but not multiple seconds.

The second presumption revolves around the distance from the start of the race to the first turn. I have to admit that from a visual standpoint, the first turn does appear to arrive sooner than when the horses started on the other side of the track. In addition, the number of horses which wind up parked out on the first turn and lose ground seems to be higher since the track switch. The conspiracy theorist inside me wonders why the track’s in-house show seems to take every opportunity to ask drivers and track crew in interviews about configuration in an effort to dispel the rumors. That makes me think that the track "doth protest too much." 

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter, I guess. As I tell my kids, you get what you get and you don't get upset. As handicappers we must figure out how to beat the odds. One professional player I spoke with told me he was projecting his first losing year at the Meadowlands since the 1990s. His reasoning was that he simply could not figure the place out since they switched sides. Perhaps if professionals are having trouble, that evens the playing field for the less knowledgeable player?

For me, there are two keys to winning at the Meadowlands, especially during the winter months:

1) You want a horse that is going to be close to the action. That doesn't mean on the lead, it means between first and third on the inside or first and maybe second over.

2) The second part goes hand and hand with the first . . . wanting a driver who is willing to be aggressive with any horse at any time. Of course Yannick Gingras is the leading driver because he gets good stock from trainer Ron Burke, but his success is also attributed to his knack for putting a horse in play if they have any chance of competing. You also see guys like Corey Callahan grabbing the bull by the horns lately and being more aggressive. That has helped him rank second in wins during the meet. Ron Pierce is another guy I want to play. He is always willing to take chances on the track and that has led to him being the only driver of the top 10 in wins during the current meet to have a positive ROI (84% according to Statsmaster). 

Looking at the second tier of the driving colony, young Joe Bongiorno is certainly a guy to keep your eye on if he has a reasonably live horse. He doesn't get top quality stock on a consistent basis, but he seems to be willing to fire a long shot off the gate if he feels that the opportunity exists.

Regular Meadowlands players will notice that the track has really sped up the time between races lately. This is a great idea that keeps the momentum moving during the night and appeals to our “I want it now” society. Our Managing Editor Matt Rose, who only plays the Meadowlands sparingly, was in action this past Saturday and really enjoyed the pace, saying, “It moved along well and I didn’t drift elsewhere to look for action. When you go to the casino, they don’t make you wait 25 minutes between hands of poker. Think about how much you hate it when the dealer has to shuffle six decks in blackjack or change decks. People just don’t like to wait.”

Finally, with the Battle of The Brandywine (3YO Pacing Colts), Colonial (3YO Trotters) and Valley Forge (3YO Filly Pacers) likely out of commission for 2014, the August stakes calendar for 3-year-old pacers could look very dry. Will that result in more nominations for races like the Meadowlands Pace? The North America Cup, Max Hempt, Meadowlands Pace and Adios were squeezed together into eight consecutive weeks (June 8 to July 27) in 2013. Unless some mystery race appears on the calendar, the best 3YO pacers will be resting up for much of the month. Perhaps that would lead to more horses racing in the Little Brown Jug? Or maybe if the Meadowlands races the second Saturday in August to make up a snow date, carding a 3-year-old open would seem like a good idea. With about $2 million off the table for second-year stars and the loss of one of the more exciting days of standardbred racing, that is not the type of news we want to hear to ring in the New Year. 

UPDATE: Sources are now telling me that there will be a major 3-year-old colt pace raced in August. Stay tuned for track, date, etc.