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Bob Pandolfo: Betting the best horse not always the way to go
By Bob Pandolfo
Handicappers want to be right. The modus operandi is to bet the horse that you think will win. It's almost impossible to win this way, but that's what most people do.
There's a gentleman who calls himself Traynor who posts harness racing stats on one of the popular online handicapping boards. Recently he posted statistical evidence stating that when betting Yonkers, his second-ranked horse produced a 143 percent return on investment while his first-ranked horse fared poorly. In the past, he has posted similar statistics on other harness tracks.
So what he's saying is that a bet on the second-fastest horse in the race (on paper), is a much better bet than a bet on the fastest horse in the race.
Now, you may ask, how can that be? Doesn't the fastest horse win more often than the next-fastest horse? Over the long run, whether you use raw final time, speed figures, etc., the top-ranked horse should win more than the second-ranked horse. But, at many tracks, the favorites are overbet. That's why his stats often show that the second-ranked horse, over a period of time, is a better bet than the favorite; the odds are much better.
I have to admit, there are some favorites that I don't want to bet against. Last Saturday was Meadowlands Pace night at the Meadowlands. That night the favorite won 8 times in 14 races. Of the eight winning favorites, there were only two that I personally wouldn't bet against, Bee A Magician and Western Vintage, who both won easily, paying $3.20 and $2.20.
I'm sure some people thought that Captaintreacherous was a lock, but I bet Rockin Amadeus in the Meadowlands Pace. He was 25-1, and I also played and an exacta box with Captaintreacherous. I thought it was a pretty good bet because the track was speed favoring and to me it looked like Rockin Amadeus might get an easy lead. He did get the lead quickly and the pace was slow, but driver Yannick Gingras just didn't have enough horse in the stretch.
Now some people may say, ‘Pandy, how could you bet against Captaintreacherous?’ I've bet against a lot of big favorites over the years and made a profit. The key is that you don't have to be right all the time, because the odds are so high on the other contenders when there's a heavy favorite in the race. Although it may seem counterintuitive, betting against odds-on favorites is actually a smart strategy if you're a good handicapper. Sure you're going to lose more bets than you win, but you're always going to lose more bets than you win. Generous payoffs mean more than win percentage in the long run.
But, I won't bet against a horse that I think is a lock. So obviously I didn't think that Captaintreacherous was a lock. I thought that some of the drivers would get aggressive but they didn't. I thought that George Brennan might try to gun Sunshine Beach again, but he took back and that strategy gave him little chance of winning on a night where all 14 winners either left the gate or went first over.
I've always taken the position that in these prestigious stakes races with high purses the drivers will be aggressive. That's a big reason why I take shots against the favorite. But maybe I should rethink it because in recent years we've seen quite a few dull races in big events like the Hambletonian and Meadowlands Pace. Four of the last six Hambos were won wire to wire by a horse that was never challenged. Last year's 2012 Meadowlands Pace was one of the most disappointing major stakes races I've ever seen, which was puzzling because on paper it looked like a wide-open race. Some of the most contentious races this year have been in the lower class levels. Why would drivers use cheap horses hard to get small purses then save ground with classy horses and big money on the line? Call me perplexed because I don't get it.
This brings up an important point to consider. Harness tracks might want to put out a "job wanted" ad that reads: "Aggressive drivers needed." Every track needs one or two aggressive drivers that keep the pace honest. Pocono Downs has George Napolitano, Jr. Yonkers has several aggressive drivers, including Jason Bartlett, George Brennan and Dan Dube.
Maybe the Meadowlands should let Walter Case Jr. back in. Licensing and legal issues have kept Case from driving for most of the last decade. When Case is driving at a track, there are no slow-paced races. If you're not aggressive, Case will go wire to wire all night long.
Most of the time when the first quarter is slow you're going to have a boring race. If Case had been driving any of the inside horses in the Big M Pace, even if he didn't leave (which he probably would have), once he saw that no one was moving he would've immediately pulled his horse and hustled him up to put some pressure on the leader. You don't steal races with soft paces when Case is in the race, he won't let you.
To be honest, and I say this will all sincerity, out of all of the drivers I've seen in the 42 years I've followed the sport, Walter Case, Jr. probably had a better understanding of what it takes to keep people coming to the track and betting on races than any other driver. He knew that people wanted a show; they wanted action-packed races. He kept the flow moving. When Case was in a race, the race was more exciting. Northfield Park and Yonkers are two tracks that saw a significant increase in handle when Case was driving.
Some of you may think I'm overreacting, but if this sport is going to survive, we must have contentious races, especially in the major stakes races. This is more critical now because of the speed bias, which seems to get more severe each year. Horses don't win from behind that often, even when the pace is fast now, but at least there's a chance that it will be a competitive race. The sport basically needs a rabbit in every stakes race, and an uber-aggressive driver fits the bill. Case would keep the drivers, and fans, from falling asleep.
Some people will say, "But that's hard on the horses." First of all, the horses don't race as often as they used to. And, hey, who created this speed-biased chalky racing where no one pulls until the three-quarters? I didn't. It wasn't my idea to put in the passing lane. I wouldn't have allowed 10-inch off-centered speed-biased steel bikes. It wasn't my idea to let the winners of the eliminations pick their own posts (which helps the favorites). You want fast times? Well, guess what, you need fast paces and you need to use the horses hard. That's how the game has changed. For a race to be entertaining over a speed-biased track, it has to have a contentious pace. In major stakes races, the faster the pace, the better. That's the bottom line.
But back to my original point. Even though favorites win at a much higher percentage now, you're still going to have a tough time showing a profit if you bet a lot of favorites, especially to win. Sometimes you can get fooled into thinking that you can grind out a profit betting favorites. But in most cases, this strategy comes up short in the long run because all it takes is a bad week or two to wipe out the modest profit you had in the first place.
Here is a strategy: If you really think that a horse is an absolute mortal lock, don't bet against it. With all of your other bets, bet against the favorite. Pretty simple. If you can't find a horse to bet besides the favorite, pass the race. And I'm not advocating betting all longshots. There are a lot of good overlays on second or third choices.
Over the long run, betting the horse that you think is going to win is not going to get the job done, assuming that your goal is to show a profit. Everyone thinks the favorite is going to win most of the time, but the fact is, favorites still lose more often than they win, and the favorite is often overbet.
To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.
Nice columnf Pandy. I'm not sure what you really want? In your Rockin Amadeus bet you wanted no-movement and a line-up number. Then you ask for more aggressiveness? Methinks the Meadowlands Pace, unlike the Hempt recently at Pocono was a mismatched event. In the Hempt the same drivers were extremely aggressive because "Captain" had post nine. In the end our sport has too many races and too many mismatched races. The Meadowlands as much as any other track, even with classified racing, has too many horses that can't win. Whatever you think of Walter Case Jr., it's hard for me to imagine him as the "savior" considering the uneven path his life has taken.
Thanks for putting my feelings into words so eloquently. Yonkers races seem like scripted parades. Why are other drivers terrified of Brennan? It's embarrassing. Meadowlands has less "polite" driving thanks to Gural but that seems to be diminishing recently.
Good stuff Pandy