08/28/2013 5:52PM

Bob Pandolfo: Fast time at Pocono Downs

Bob Pandolfo can't imagine that horses from this era are the equal of greats like Varenne.

When you look up world records for harness racing, you see the records categorized by sex, age and size of track. If you look at the trotting world records on five-eighths tracks, the USTA shows 16 trotting records. One of them is from Finland, the other 15 were set at Pocono Downs.

I have my own software system I use to help me handicap. Almost every year I have to adjust the track speed for Pocono. Right now I have Pocono Downs rated just two-fifths of a second below the speed of The Meadowlands and several other one mile tracks, and I'm not sure that's fast enough.

The track is so fast that many people have told me that they believe that the harness races at Pocono are actually shorter than a mile. We used to hear the same rumors about Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track in Maryland. These rumors started because horses that won in fast times at Rosecroft would often ship to the Meadowlands or Yonkers and get creamed.

[DRF HARNESS: Sign Up for the FREE DRF Harness Newsletter Today!]

Many people have contacted me and asked if the races at Pocono are actually a mile. I don't know. I always assumed that they were since the program states that the races are a mile long. But, I have to admit, the final times at Pocono are suspiciously fast.

To put this in perspective, time in harness racing is relative to the configuration of the track. To simplify it, the fewer turns, the faster. So, the fastest harness track should be Colonial Downs in Virginia. Colonial Downs is a one and one quarter mile oval. The one mile harness races start from a chute. Therefore, the harness races only go around one turn. Colonial Downs is the fastest harness track in North America.

The next fastest tracks should be two turn tracks. In the U.S., Vernon Downs is a seven-eighths of a mile track, but they race two turns. Other well known two turn tracks, such as Balmoral, the Meadowlands and The Red Mile (Lexington), are one mile tracks. In Canada, Mohawk and Woodbine are two turn tracks but they are also seven-eighths in distance. The times on these two turn tracks are very close. I have The Red Mile rated as the fastest surface of the two turn tracks, but there's really not a big difference between the tracks.

The third fastest tracks should be the five-eighth tracks, which are three turn miles. And the slowest tracks should be the half mile tracks, which race around four turns.

The bottom line is a horse races slower around turns than they do on straights. Some of you may be thinking that you've seen many races where they run a faster first quarter around a turn than a last quarter on a straightaway. That certainly happens often in Thoroughbred racing. But that's because the horses are tiring.

Quarter horses run a lot of races that are a quarter of a mile on a straight. If you ran those same horses a quarter mile but put the starting gate in front of a turn the times would be significantly slower.

Now of course, athleticism comes into play. You could say that a horses’ ability to run fast around a turn is part of what makes a top class horse. Some Thoroughbred handicappers like to analyze "turn times" to see which horses showed the best speed around the final turn. Personally, when I watch both harness and Thoroughbred races, I pay a lot of attention to what's happening on the turns. This is even more important in maiden races or with younger horses that are just establishing their class.  Horses that race three or four wide on turns are expending a great deal of energy, especially if they're moving in a fast part of the race. And with Thoroughbreds, you can also watch how young horses handle traffic and dirt in their face while negotiating a turn. You can catch a lot of overlay and longshot winners if you pay close attention and jot down notes about horses that used a lot of energy on the turns.

So, the fact that horses go so fast at Pocono Downs is perplexing. Normally you would expect that horses will go anywhere from a second to a second and a half slower around three turns than two. I haven't heard any complaints about the surface at Pocono so it's not that the surface is hard. Just last year several horsemen made comments about how much they liked the surface, which seems to be held in high regard. And maybe that's the solution to the mystery. Could it be that horses like the surface so much that they go faster?

On August 21 at Pocono, 2-year-old trotting filly Cooler Schooner went wire to wire in her 6th lifetime start and set a world record of 1:51 3/5. This was a performance that seemed a bit unreal. Let's try to put it in perspective. Coming into that race, Cooler Schooner's fastest win time was 1:56 1/5, taken at Harrah's Philadelphia, another five-eighths track. She had also finished 2nd at the Meadowlands and trotted in 1:55 4/5. But, she had made a few breaks and with only six starts, she was certainly eligible to improve. She improved by 23 lengths.

The fastest trotting mile over a one mile track is 1:50 1/5.  Five trotters have reached that pinnacle including champions Donato Hanover and Muscle Hill, two machine-like trotters that dominated their opposition.

Varenne, the greatest trotter I've seen race in the past 20 years or so, set a world record of 1:51 1/5 when he won the Breeders Crown under wraps at the Meadowlands in 2001. That mile was the most impressive trotting mile I've ever seen because he made the best trotters in North America look like claimers.

Many people feel that Varenne was the greatest of all time and it's hard to argue with them. Varenne won 62 races in 73 starts while racing in seven different countries and two continents. And Varenne faced monsters, beating many champion trotters in his storied career. He beat the great Moni Maker three times. He beat champion Victory Tilly, another powerful trotter, four times. To consistently defeat these great horses is truly a remarkable feat and is the main reason why Varenne is held is such high regard. Who you beat always trumps time when evaluating greatness.

It's a bit hard to believe that a 2-year-old filly trotter, Cooler Schooner, went only a second and two-fifths slower than these powerful American trotters, and only two-fifths slower than Varenne. And she did it in her 6th lifetime start, while going three turns instead of two.  Now of course, Varenne raced with a slower bike in 2001. The latest generation of sulkies are considerably faster.

But, if you believe in time, or should I say, if you believe the times at Pocono Downs, then Cooler Schooner is a potentially great trotter. It will be interesting to follow her career and she how she does on other tracks. Visually, Cooler Schooner's mile looked strong as she jetted to the lead and bottomed out the field with John Campbell in the bike.

It may not be a bad idea for someone in the industry, perhaps from the USTA, to ask Pocono Downs for permission to measure the track from starting point to the finish line to make sure that it is actually a mile. I'm just saying. Why not put the rumors to rest for good?

Don't take this the wrong way, I like Pocono Downs. Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs is a very nice track in Pennsylvania. It has a casino and it's a good place to watch and bet on harness racing. I particularly like the patio area which offers outdoor table seating. Most tracks just offer either stadium style seating or worse. And at Pocono you can get a Racing Rewards Club Card which you can use to earn comps on your harness racing wagers, which is great. My wife and I always enjoy ourselves when we spend a night at Pocono Downs.

But the times are a little odd for a three turn track. And do they mean anything? I'm sure the owners feel good when they have a horse win in a fast time at Pocono, but racing fans know that these fast times at Pocono don't carry much weight. I doubt they significantly increase a horse's value to breeders.

Fast times are nice when racing fans can get excited about them. But unfortunately they simply don't mean much anymore since track records are broken almost every other race and twenty claimers go in 1:50.

In 1938, Greyhound, the Grey Ghost, trotted a mile in 1:55 1/5. That world record stood for 31 years. That record meant something. When Greyhound set that record, it was a big story that was carried in all the newspapers. Greyhound was one of the most popular athletes of his era.

People always ask why the races keep going faster. Some actually think that every few months the breed magically improves. Remember, years ago we removed the hub-rails. This was done for safety, and was a smart change. Without the hub-rail, the drivers can race much closer to the inside. With the hub-rail, a driver had to make sure his wheel didn't hit the rail. Removing the hub-rail made the races go faster.

And, most horses racing today use a sulky that is not only more aerodynamic in every possible way, including the wheels, but the bikes are now 10 inches off-centered. So take the thickness of the hub-rail and add 10 inches and horses are now racing 15 inches or more closer to the inside. This makes a huge difference around turns. It's math, not genetics.

Some people insist that the horses are bigger and stronger or better gaited now because the breed is so improved. Bigger and stronger than who? Greyhound? The grey gelding stood 16 hands and glided over the track with massive and powerful strides. Better gaited than Varenne or Niatross? Faster than Nihilator? Call me a skeptic.

[DRF HARNESS: Get Free Harness PPs when you wager with DRF Bets]

And please don't tell me that the horses look better on the track, which I hear from several people. Did you ever see Artsplace or Nihilator up close? These horses and many others that I've had the pleasure to see in person, were impressive physical specimens. The first great horse I saw in person was Albatross. I was still a teenager at the time. My cousin Phil and I went to Roosevelt to watch Albatross race. My father, a stock broker by trade and always the contrarian, had given me money to bet against Albatross. When Albatross came out on the track for the post parade, we took one look at his chiseled physique and my cousin said dryly, "Book it."

As for the times at Pocono Downs, I admit that I don’t understand it. But I don't think that a 2-year-old filly with six lifetime starts is almost as fast as some of the greatest trotters of all time including Moni Maker and Varenne. Cooler Schooner's next start, in a PA Sire Stakes, is scheduled for Friday, August 30 at Harrah's Philadelphia (race 5). Check it out.

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.