01/29/2014 6:16PM

Bob Pandolfo: Class and a touch of speed equals success

Derick Giwner
Many races on the east coast went through Herve Filion in the 1970s and 80s.

When I first got interested in Harness Racing, around 1971, the only tracks I followed were Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceways. Both were half-mile tracks. I was a teenager at the time but I quickly noticed one key thing.

Herve Filion was the dominant driver; he had his choice of several horses to drive. Herve was a crafty driver and he knew how to use his skills to get his horse into a good spot. But he also knew which horse he had to beat and how to hurt that one’s chances. Because of his talent, and the fact that he often had the best horse, most of the races went through Herve. In other words, you had to decide whether to bet on Herve, who was winning at 25%, or take a stand against him. Since I was just learning how to handicap, I usually bet on Herve, looking through his drives and selecting the ones that appeared to be his strongest of the night.

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After playing the trotters for a few months, I also noticed that many horses won off a drop in class. It appeared that each horse had a certain amount of inherent class. Some horses seemed tougher, or classier than others, even in the claiming ranks.

At that time, Harness Racing was not that speed favoring. Many races were won by horses that had stalking or closing trips. In modern Harness Racing on most half-mile and five-eighth tracks, a high percentage of the races are won by leavers. The two best trips are on the lead or in the pocket (two-hole). But looking back, there really wasn’t a preferred trip. On a typical night you might see a couple of wire to wire winners, a couple of pocket-trip winners and four or five winners that won with either first, second or third over trips.

Another big difference in the sport was the backstretch action. Many winners were horses that launched their winning move three wide down the backstretch. In today’s sport, horses that try to gun three wide down the back usually run out of steam because of the fast internal fractions. Years ago the races were much slower so the closers had more time to catch up.

I would say that in the 1970’s, the single most important handicapping factor was class. In today’s sport, class is still important to a certain degree. But the significance of class lessens over the smaller ovals. On half mile tracks, the horses have to race around four turns. At one mile tracks, they only race around two turns. The longer straight-aways down the backstretch and in the homestretch take away some of the advantage of early speed and give the class horse a chance to work its way into contention.

In modern harness racing, the class horse is often beaten by a leaver or a horse with inside position. Again, this is truer on the half and five-eighth size tracks. This is mainly because of the faster times. During the winter, class horses that figure to be racing off the pace will win more races than during the summer. The colder and windier it is, the slower final times. But generally speaking, on half-mile tracks, and many five-eighth size tracks, early speed and inside position are favored over a class horse that does not figure to leave the gate. Of course if a horse has both early speed and is the class of the race, it will be tough to beat.

This is often a decision we have to make in today’s races. Assuming that the class of the race is not likely to leave, do we bet the class or a leaver?

The reality is, despite the speed-favoring nature of today’s sport, you must make a careful evaluation of class. Horses taking key drops in class still turn in sharply improved performances. Class still counts. Trying to figure out if the class is going to win is trickier than it used to be. Here are some things to look for.

Early Speed Capability: One of the advantages of following one circuit is that you get to know each horse’s profile. There are some tracks where the rules are set up to help the local horsemen. This means that there are few shippers. You’ll see this at Dover Downs and Harrington in Delaware, and The Meadows in Pennsylvania. If you follow these circuits, it’s easy to profile the traits of the horses.  Sometimes a horse will not show any speed in the past performances. But you may know that several months ago the horse was leaving the gate. It can leave. But since the horse has been overmatched in the past couple of months, and perhaps not in its best form, it has been racing off the pace.

You also get to know each driver’s habits. Drivers will often leave with a horse when it is dropping into a good spot, even if the horse has been racing off the pace.

Stretch Finish: Horses that win a good percentage of their starts and have some class are usually good finishers. At the Meadowlands this winter, there have been quite a few big longshot winners. One thing I noticed was that several of these bombs had recorded at least one recent fast final quarter over the track.

Because of the fast fractions that we see in today’s sport, the result often comes down to which horse has the most left in the stretch. What you want to look for are horses that are solid competitors and have at least a touch of class. These types of horses usually have some races where they’ve recorded fast final quarters. But keep in mind, the best horses to bet are horses that are versatile; they can win by leaving, going first over, or closing off a cover trip. Basically, they can get into position. Try to avoid horses that lag far back in most of their starts then make one late move. Balmoral in Chicago is one of the few tracks where these deep late closers win. At most tracks, horses have to get into striking distance by the three quarters, and this requires some speed. But the ability to finish strongly in the stretch is a big asset, even in today’s speed-favoring sport.

Class and finishing ability are still strong assets for a racehorse. The big difference between now and the 1970’s and 80’s is that tactical early speed is just as important. The best horses to bet have all three: speed, class and good stretch finishes. And remember, just because a horse hasn’t been leaving lately, doesn’t mean that it can’t. Aggressive drivers will often leave with a horse when it drops into a winning spot.

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.

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