01/12/2015 10:01AM

Bergman: Bargain hunting at the Meadowlands


Finding favorites to bet on in harness racing is a rather simple task. Just look at the board and place a wager. If you’re in the business of betting favorites, there’s little work involved and limited rewards. But if you’re interested in looking for longshots you have to dig deep and sometimes think outside of the box.

The Meadowlands is a great place to start when looking for solid wagers that won’t hit the eye of those watching the toteboard. If there’s one positive in analyzing horses in the A-B-C condition era it is that when you dig down to the basement you can find high-priced jewels that have better figures than one might think.

The C-2 class in particular is a great place to mine for gold. Because it’s the lowest class that is carded at the Meadowlands, C-2 matches horses that may in fact be no better than C-4 or perhaps as good as C-1. There is a great variance in the quality of horses that are entered at the bottom level and attention needs to be paid in order to find a figure horse that’s past performances are hiding between the lines.

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This past Thursday the Meadowlands hosted a C-2 event carded as race 10. The field included many horses that had gone fast during their careers but had a limited number of horses that looked to be in exceptional form. The public choice Smart Rokker had finished third in his most recent start against the class climbing Rockeyed Optimist. Mind you the horse was 75-1 in that race and was nearly seven lengths off the winner at the finish while racing from behind, but at least he was going forward.

What made Smart Rokker the public choice was likely that he was dropping in class significantly and appeared to be in against a formless group. However, those wagering on Meadowlands races should always be cognizant of mile-track form before going to the windows. In the case of Smart Rokker, the five-year-old had won 10 of his 55 lifetime starts but his fastest win time came over the half-miler at Yonkers and more recently he’d been racing at Freehold.

In looking over the field, the Mike Watson trained Magic Tricks had started once in November at the C-2 level and finished 10th of 12 horses. The five-year-old had drawn post nine (later eight due to a scratch) and had Brett Miller driving for the first time. The horse had been scratched from a much higher class race at The Meadows on December 22 and his last competitive line was a fourth-place finish in a $15,000/$20,000 claiming handicap at Harrah’s Philadelphia, a level that also translates higher than C-2.

There were many handicapping red flags surrounding Magic Tricks on the surface. Upon closer inspection, a review of his November start at The Meadowlands showed that the horse was entered in a 1 1/8 miles contest and left hard in a wicked :26 first quarter. Magic Tricks found himself hopelessly boxed in and shuffled back and that helped to explain the disappointing finish. There are those with the school of thought that if the horse didn’t rally after the shuffle that he was no good. In this case the added distance wasn’t going to help making the finish more excusable.

You have to dig deeper sometimes and a closer look at the 12 horses entered at the Meadowlands in the C-2 class in November indicated a much stronger and more competitive field than the one assembled on Thursday.

Sometimes even more work is necessary to truly understand the capabilities of any individual horse. Granted what a horse did a year ago doesn’t always tell you what he’ll do today, but it’s always important to know the level a horse competed against when assessing class. In the case of Magic Tricks, the horse had won a race at the Meadowlands a full year earlier in 1:49 4/5 racing against a solid group of four-year-olds that included optional $50,000 claimers. While Magic Trick’s recent past performances weren’t glittering, he oozed class in a field clearly lacking very much.

Had this not been a C-2 race where the class of each horse has to be called into question, extensive research may have not proven as valuable.

Brett Miller managed to carve out a great trip for Magic Tricks and the 18-1 shot rolled by Smart Rokker in a 1:52 4/5 mile.

Some will point to the fact that the horse showed being scratched in his last start as a reason to avoid the horse. This logic at one point in time was fool proof. However, in recent years horsemen tend to have horses more fit and prepared regardless of scratches and rarely enter without good intent. Trainer Mike Watson has a high win percentage and a bettor must determine whether a horse that might be a little short because of idleness is worth a bet if the odds are significant.

As a handicapper it’s much easier to recover from losing a few bets on 15-1 shots than it is to try to get even with odds-on horses. At the same time it’s more difficult to find reasonable longshots that actually have chances to win. In looking at the multiple C-2 opportunities available at the Meadowlands, work needs to be put in to completely understand the depth of the field and the overall class of all the horses. At the basement level, whether at The Meadowlands or any other track, there are always horses that lack the class of the others. At The Meadowlands it’s important to distinguish the mile track horses from those that compete with regularity over half-mile ovals. Not all horses that race on a half-mile track have the high speed necessary to win over the mile oval. In the case of Magic Tricks it was rather the opposite. His best races were on the mile track and his worst were over the half-mile ovals.

Handicapping to find longshots requires work and a great deal of imagination. It also requires the bettor to question the invincibility of the favorites.

Sometimes the best bargains can be found at the basement level.

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