08/09/2012 10:45AM

The Uncovered Trip


There are times when I wonder whether I write enough handicapping articles. With Harness Night School in full swing, I have been contributing some video content. The first two topics dealt with drivers and trainers, which is pretty cut and dry. Now we start getting into the meat and potatoes.

Starting next week the topics become more complex: Class/Racing Conditions/Shippers; Pace/Times/Track Bias; Trip Handicapping. It is the final topic which I want to touch on this week in print/online.

One of the things I love the most about harness racing is trip handicapping. Being able to paint a picture of how the race will unfold and putting the puzzle together is a challenge I completely enjoy. There is a certain satisfaction when you spend time studying and the action occurs on the track just the way you expected.

Trip handicapping used to revolve around trying to decipher which horse would end up in the pocket or second-over. Well, both trips still win their fair share, but as we all know the tide has changed to speed. Nothing beats having a horse on the lead, especially at the upper levels where horses keep finding more stamina regardless of whether they were pressured.

But a new wrinkle has been developing over the last few years. Could the new golden trip be the uncovered route?

In 2012, I have been watching horse after horse come first-over and keep chugging along until they assume command and pull clear. There have been some nights at the Meadowlands where four or five horses have won despite being uncovered.

Years ago an uncovered trip meant you were destined to back through the field in the late stages. Sure, there was the odd horse each night, usually a trotter, which grinded it out on the rim and lived to tell about it, but for the most part first-over was a death sentence to any driver hoping to win.

Times have changed and can point to a few reasons why the landscape is different.

Equipment is certainly playing a role here. New racing bikes like the UFO and Spider assist horses in carrying their speed for the entire mile.

Standardbreds in general seem to be able to maintain their speed further. They just don’t tire as easily and quickly as they seemed to years ago.

Maybe it is not a coincidence that the uncovered winners tend to come from the barns with high win rates. These horses are making their own trip rather than hoping for the luck. Perhaps their ability to overcome the uncovered journey is because these barns are using cutting edge vitamins and supplements that smaller barns cannot afford. Or maybe some trainers are using some undetectable exotic illegal substances. Either way, advancements in the nutrition and medication fields are allowing horses to stay fresh at the end of the mile despite taking air first-over.

Okay, so horses racing uncovered are winning more often. What does that mean for handicapping? Do we look for horses getting that trip?

Simply put, the first-over phenomenon means that the best horse is going to win more often. When a driver has the best horse he is more likely to pull and challenge rather than elect to hope for a cover trip. When you eliminate the luck factor of having to work out a trip, the best horse is more likely to win.

This theory doesn’t hold water for all horses at all tracks. It clearly works with more accuracy when dealing with better horses. The classier the horse the more likely they will be able to tough out taking air while racing the extra distance two-wide.

So when you are handicapping your next race and see a horse that looks good but you are worried about a first-over trip, don’t be so quick to toss that selection aside. Behind “on the lead” and “in the pocket”, the first-over trip might be moving into a close battle for the show spot on the trip strength chart with second-over.

Touching on the best

We are more than seven months into the racing year and halfway through the stakes season. This is the perfect time to look at the equine leaders.

Some may look at my top pick as outside the box, but to me 3-year-old pacing star A Rocknroll Dance has earned the top spot. He may not head the leaderboard in wins or earnings, but he certainly ranks as the chief of the class in guts. The Jim Mulinix trainee has posted eight straight sub-1:50 miles and four of them are lower than 1:49. On top of that, he has arguably faced the best crop of second-year pacers in the last 10 years.  There are no easy races in this division.

To me the next four spots are tight in my book. Top 3-year-old pacing filly American Jewel, her trotting equal Check Me Out, older trotting stud Chapter Seven, and older pacer Betterthancheddar have all had good starts to their seasons and any of the quartet could step up as the year progresses and earn the honor of Horse of the Year.

I place Hambletonian winner Market Share next on my list. That one win holds a lot of weight. If he can pick up two or three more stakes wins, he moves way up the list.

I’m going to end my list with 2-year-old sensation To Dream On. The filly trotter is perfect in four starts and has looked the part of a special horse. It is very hard for a rookie to earn a Horse of the Year title. She will have to go undefeated to have any chance. If she does, one of the others listed above would have to be nearly perfect for the rest of the year to keep me from voting To Dream On.


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