02/22/2016 12:47PM

Bergman: Proper combo needed for Meadowlands longshots

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Driver John Campbell put in an aggressive effort on longshot Cheyenne Seeber at the Meadowlands recently.

Live drivers and longshots go together. There’s no way around it.

The Meadowlands has been a great spot over this winter to seek out and find live horses at legitimate prices. Perhaps different this season than the last few winters is the altered dynamic of the driving colony. The lack of domination of the Burke-Gingras tandem in the training and driving ranks has left the field open to suggestion and with it comes many connections with free rein to take chances.

This past weekend it was refreshing to see drivers of longshots playing proverbial hardball with favorites in what could have looked like the “Bizarro World” to some. There were also many instances where those cutting the pace refused to yield just because a horse made a brisk move before the half. At times the strategy paid off and other times it didn’t, but it was worthwhile to see a less cliquey appearance during a race.

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Finding longshots in the program is one thing but predicting whether the drivers will have the same impulse when the race starts is totally different. Here’s where a close study of driver habits can pay off royally.

Anthony Napolitano has literally been a breath of fresh air this year at the Meadowlands, bringing his skill and style to the big track for the first time. His greatest skill would appear to be getting maximum speed out of horses in the early stages.

Napolitano was driving Western Captive in this past Saturday’s fifth race and had post three directly inside betting favorite Stratocaster. Both horses were really half-mile track specialists that have found themselves at the Meadowlands this winter for different reasons.

Western Captive was coming off an impossible off the pace mile where he failed to gain ground. Stratocaster had been racing almost exclusively from off the pace until his most recent start when Jim Marohn Jr, another bright and upcoming driver, made a couple of moves with him at 9-2 and came up a little short in a big mile.

On Saturday, Western Captive was 8-1 and Stratocaster was 7-5.

Looking at those odds a calculation had to be made about potential trips. From my perspective, I didn’t see Stratocaster as the type that could easily cut a mile at the Meadowlands and hold on. With that in mind the feeling was he was vulnerable at 7-5.

On the other end of the spectrum, Napolitano and Western Captive, having failed while racing off the pace, appeared a likely leaver and when wagering on longshots that’s perhaps the most important factor. Can the horse leave and will the driver be willing to do so?

In the case of Napolitano, he has shown the instincts to give a horse a chance at the start.

On Saturday he gunned Western Captive to the front and surprised Marohn and myself at the same time by grudgingly forcing the favorite into a two hole. The spirited 26 3/5 opener was the price Napolitano was willing to pay for control.

Napolitano’s decision to put the favorite in a hole goes against much of the conventional strategy that plays out across North America. Yet for those wagering on longshots it meant he was willing to give his horse a chance regardless of what the betting public thought.

In the end, the betting public’s choice rolled by and though Western Captive was passed he fought to the wire holding on to third place.

It’s impossible to say what might have happened had Marohn and Stratocaster gotten the front early, but perhaps Napolitano was unwilling to risk the dreaded three-hole trip had Marohn yielded to a backside brush.

I have always felt that recognizing class is a major part of longshot handicapping at the Meadowlands. For that, sometimes you need to look back in past performances further than the customary 6-8 most recent lines.

Going back over the last two years, Cheyenne Seeber had been victorious at the Meadowlands and at the same time he’d been in with some very impressive horses including Rockeyed Optimist and Lyonssomehwere. While not necessarily in that league of horses today, the 5-year-old gelding showed up at the Meadowlands on February 6 at a reduced level.

At 6-1 on that occasion he was an interesting prospect considering the drop in class and the knowledge that Cheyenne Seeber had mile track experience.

John Campbell sent him to the front as expected but the horse yielded and then had trouble keeping up while the pace was rather moderate. At first blush it appeared as if the horse was in some form of distress, but Campbell and Cheyenne Seeber did not back through the field. To the contrary, they lost some position but finished the race willingly into a solid pace.

The sixth-place finish (placed 5th after a disqualification) was a mystery considering he came home in 26 4/5 after struggling in a 28 1/5 second quarter.

For Cheyenne Seeber’s effort he was rewarded with a drop in company, but at the same time he landed post eight.

Cheyenne Seeber opened at odds of 28-1 on Saturday night and eventually closed at 16-1.

From the handicapper’s side of the fence you had to believe Campbell knew what he was sitting behind while at the same time hopeful the drop in class would be enough for him to consider leaving the gate strongly.

Like Napolitano earlier, Campbell left and left with purpose, showing no willingness for an early seat or no reason to look for the pocket trip. A 26 2/5 opening quarter while racing wide most of the way is what it cost him and by the final turn after fractions of 54 and 1:22 2/5, it appeared as if Cheyenne Seeber was in the process of doing what he did two weeks earlier and that is surrendering.

That proved not to be the case as despite being passed by a full length by the attacking Allstar Legend at headstretch, Cheyenne Seeber dug in gamely and was on the wire with two others losing a bare nose to the 9-5 First Of Itskind, again with Marohn Jr driving the favorite.

These runner-ups were posted on DRF Live this past Saturday and that’s the mission statement from this end. Looking for longshots comes with its heartaches since winners pay off far better than losers.

At the same time, value horses can be combined with the chalk with the results producing attractive exacta and triple returns.