01/04/2012 10:44AM

2012 Meadowlands Meet Preview

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The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., is the premier harness racing track in the world, with the highest daily handle in the industry and a stakes schedule that is second to none. In 2012, the Meadowlands will offer two distinct meets: winter (Jan. 6 to April 21) and championship (May 4 to August 18). Many changes will be on tap during the year. Let’s take a look at New Meadowlands.

Track surface

With Thoroughbred racing off the menu, the track surface has undergone a major adjustment. The Meadowlands is a mile track with two turns that have been flat to accommodate the fall Thoroughbred meet. In September of 2011, Meadowlands maintenance personnel began the process of re-introducing a bank to the turns. The 10 percent incline that was in place nearly a decade ago will return for 2012.

The new configuration will produce a downhill effect for horses attempting to rally on the far turn from off-the-pace while on the outside of the track. The speed-favoring bias that has developed in recent years will be much less prevalent due to the addition of banked turns.

One final note on the new surface: Other than two dozen or so qualifiers held so far, the re-conditioned racing surface has barely been broken in. The surface could be loose in the first week of action and biases may change dramatically over the first few weeks of the meet.

Learn more about the new banked turns and hear what drivers have to say about the new turns:

Winter bias

When wagering on the Meadowlands, it is important to separate the winter months from the spring and summer. The cold temperatures and constantly changing wind patterns during the winter play a major role in the outcome of nearly every race. Without a doubt, closers win at a much higher rate during the winter months. This is due in large part to the inability of horses at the front of the pack to maintain their speed while facing the elements.

As any football fan who has watched a Giants or Jets game will attest, the wind is a tricky foe at the Meadowlands. Just as quarterback Eli Manning has to deal with swirling winds inside MetLife stadium, bettors must face the same issues at the track across the street. A shift in the winds can change a speed favoring surface into a closers delight in a matter of minutes. If you attend the races live, be sure to check out the flags at both ends of the stretch. If both sets are moving in one direction, that is the true indicator of a strong wind-aided bias. Typically, if the wind is at the horses’ backs in the stretch (tailwind), closers will have an advantage. The alternate effect is a headwind, which will favor speed, because the leaders will be wind-aided on the backstretch and closers will face a stiff wind while attempting to close in the lane. Big middle moves on the backstretch are common when there is a strong headwind due to the wind gusts behind the horses on the backstretch.

Horses

There are three key areas to examine when considering horses during the winter months at the Meadowlands: shippers and layoffs, horses for the course, and series races.

• Shippers and layoffs – Many horses will be showing up on opening weekend (Jan. 6) having missed two to three weeks of action. Most of these horses will be arriving from Chester while some will be upper-level Freehold horses or regular Yonkers Raceway performers. A three-week break between starts may be some cause for concern if a horse was racing every week. But there were few tracks in session from Dec. 24 to Jan. 5, and many of these horses simply had no place to ply their trade. Stick with horses shipping from stronger venues like Chester and Yonkers but give consideration if a sharp barn brings in a fresh face from the Midwest or Canada.

• Horses for the course – Certain horses excel at the Meadowlands, especially during the winter months. Military Stratcom reeled off five wins in seven starts during the first quarter of last year. Aachoo, Last Conquest, Ridge Jumper, and Wildridge Sam all scored four wins during the same period. Be sure to check our Harness Eye past performances for detailed data on which horses may step up in East Rutherford.

• Series races – The winter months are filled with three-leg series events. Starting on Jan. 12, the Super Bowl and White Ruffles series will kick off the schedule with the first of two preliminary legs before the rich finals are contested on Jan. 26. The first three months are filled with similar multi-leg series, and they are chock-full of heavy favorites and live longshots.

Drivers

Many of the top drivers in the country – Brian Sears, Tim Tetrick, Yannick Gingras, David Miller, Ron Pierce, Andy Miller, John Campbell – will be driving in nearly every race on each card at New Meadowlands. While they will dominate the win column, a few other pilots might provide more in the way of return on investment. According to Statsmaster (powered by TrackMaster), Brandon Simpson showed a 43 percent ROI with favorites from Jan. 1, 2011 to March 31, 2011 (winter meet), winning 8 of 15 races. During the same period, trainer/driver Stacy Chiodo scored 2 longshot wins (odds of 5-1 or higher) in 19 starts for a 27 percent ROI.

Brian Sears was the only Meadowlands regular to produce a positive ROI (4 percent) during the 2011 winter meet. While he checked in with a minus-13 percent rate on favorites (Andy Miller was tops among regulars producing an 11 percent ROI), Sears helped bettors with a 19 percent return rate on longshots.

Trainers

Perhaps no handicapping factor carries more weight than the trainer, who is calling the shots behind the scenes. Lou Pena led the way with 31 wins during the winter of 2011. But the Meadowlands’ new operator, Jeff Gural, has banned Pena from competing at his tracks (including Tioga and Vernon in New York) and is planning to crack down on policy violators and suspected violators. Pena has denied any wrongdoing. Management said it has reviewed trainer applications for 2012 and rejected a number of them but did not disclose the names or the exact number.

Finishing a close second in the wins category during the first three months of 2011 was reigning Trainer of the Year Ron Burke. Despite starting an astronomical 161 horses during the winter, he came through with a 5 percent ROI.

The real money to be made comes in the way of picking your spots with sneaky-good barns. Trainer Brett Bittle raced 12 horses during the winter last year and posted 3 wins to the tune of a 286 percent ROI. Orlando Greene started 6 horses and scored with half of them for a 123 percent ROI. He also went 2 for 2 with horses in their first start off the claim for a 450 percent ROI. Up-and-coming 36-year-old conditioner Tyler Raymer scored 3 times in 23 races for an 88 percent ROI.

Qualifiers

Years ago, horses rarely won off qualifying races. They often took a few starts to race into shape before finding their peak form. More and more, horses are stepping out on the track ready to roll and many keys to uncovering which horses you should consider derive from watching qualifier replays or relying on informed analysis from an on-track analyst.

If you do not have the time to watch every qualifier, you will want to check out our exclusive Meadowlands Qualifying Insider. Our man at the track will list in detail the most interesting performances and why they might yield a strong play in the future.

Wagering

The crown jewel of the Meadowlands’ wagering lineup is always the pick 4. Boosted by a $50,000 guaranteed pool on Thursdays and Fridays and a $75,000 guarantee on Saturdays, the wager is sure to have continued success. Starting nightly in race six, the pick 4 offers a reduced 15 percent takeout and produced an average payout exceeding $2,300 in 2011.

The new kid on the block in 2011 was the 50-cent pick 5. Introduced in July and commencing on the first race of each program, the pick five saw instant success on the handle front. The wager will once again kick off with race one in 2012. There are a few other changes in store. The rolling pick 3 has been eliminated. There will only be one nightly pick 3 covering the last three races on each evening’s program. A new addition to the menu is full-card superfectas. A $1 super will be offered in all races except 5, 7, 9, 11, and the final race, where a 10-cent minimum will be available.

Operations

Gural spearheaded a group that has now leased the track from the state of New Jersey. During the 30-year lease agreement, many changes will occur, not the least of which will be the construction of a new state-of-the-art grandstand on the backstretch.

Gural will stop at nothing to make the betting experience more palatable. In his short tenure, he has already restored the banking on the turns, revamped the wagering menu, put in motion a program to keep older horses racing, and is always looking for new ideas. Look for possible program and video improvements and a hands-on approach from management.

Schedule

New Meadowlands will start the racing season on Jan. 6 and continue on a Thursday-to-Saturday schedule through March 10. From March 16 to June 23, Thursdays will be dropped (no racing on April 27-28). Thursday racing will return on June 28, and the three-day schedule continues until Aug. 4. At that point, racing will continue for two more weeks on Friday and Saturday only. The track will open for a two-day meet on Dec. 28-29.

Stakes highlights Hambletonian Day (Aug. 4), the most spectacular display of harness talent on one afternoon, will once again be the highlight at New Meadowlands. At least 11 stakes events will be carded, anchored by the $1.5 million Hambletonian and $750,000 Hambletonian Oaks.

A close second on the Hambletonian card is program supporting the $800,000 Meadowlands Pace (July 14). The marquee event for 3-year-old pacers will be joined by the $350,000 Stanley Dancer, a major stepping stone to the Hambletonian.

Winter series finals begin on Jan. 26 and continue on Jan. 28 with the $100,000 Presidential, the $75,000 Clyde Hirt, and $75,000 Complex. There will be five finals on the weekend of Feb. 17, and March offers seven series finales ranging from $60,000 to $125,000 in purse money.