01/31/2013 11:09AM

Bob Pandolfo: Hard-trying horses and the three-length rule

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One of the most simple but overlooked factors in betting horses is -- betting on game horses. We often talk about analyzing trips or fractional times; looking for key driver changes; comparing final times. Yes, there are many factors. That's why my book, Trotpicks: Modern Harness Handicapping, is 126 pages long and could have been much longer.

I don't think there's any question about it, some horses try harder than others. Sometimes we call this desire to win "class." A lot of times our final decision on which horse to bet comes down to two selections. Let's create an example. Say we're handicapping a race at the Meadowlands. The Meadowlands is tough on cheap speed. On half mile tracks, and some five eighth tracks, you'll often see cheap horses win because they used their early speed to get the lead. This doesn't happen at the Meadowlands, especially in the winter. For a horse to go wire to wire at the Meadowlands it usually has to have some class. The Meadowlands is a track that favors horses that can finish, and have a touch of class.

So say that I'm handicapping a $15,000 claiming race at the Meadowlands, and I've narrowed it down to two horses, the four and the five. Both are 2-1 odds. The four horse is a 4 year old that has a lifetime win percentage of 15% and the horse has won several races at the same $15,000 level, but all on half and five eighth tracks. Last week the horse made its first start at the Meadowlands and showed good form, finishing third closing nicely with a final time of 1:52. This horse has never beaten horses worth much more than $20,000.

The five horse is a 9 year old who also has a lifetime win percentage of 15%. He raced over the track in a $15,000 claimer last week and finished third, also showing good form, closing well with a final time of 1:52. We can see why these horses are both 2-1. But, the 9 horse has raced 10 times over the Meadowlands track in his career and has 3 wins, which is 30%, twice his lifetime win percentage. And, two years ago when he was 7 years old he took his lifetime mark of 1:50.1 over this track. In his career he has raced competitively against Preferred company at times, and has won races at claiming levels from $15,000 on up to $50,000.

You can see where I'm going with this. The five horse has something we call "back class." He is an older, more established horse than the four horse. All we know about the four horse is that he has beaten $15,000 claimers, on smaller tracks. With the five horse, we know that although he has obviously lost a few steps, he has, in his career, beaten much better horses and he is a proven winner over this track.

In this situation, I'm almost always going to go with the older class horse. The only time I wouldn't would be if the five horse was taking a suspicious drop or appeared to be tailing off sharply. But I've noted that both horses closed well in last and both come off good efforts.

I'm not saying that the older class horse will always prevail in this type of situation. But more often than not it will. And it's not just about age. If the 4 horse was 9 years old as well, it would make me like the five horse even more, because that would mean that the four horse was 9 years old and had never raced well against horses worth more than $20,000. An ordinary claimer is going to have a tough time beating a horse with established back class against quality competition.

This holds true at most tracks but as I've noted, cheap speed does hold on more often on some of the three and four turn tracks. That's because the class horses in the race can get bogged down from bad spots, such as outside posts, and a cheap speed horse from the inside can control the pace and hang on. This rarely happens at the Meadowlands.

I'm going to give you another way to zero in on a higher percentage of winners. This angle can also prove useful when trying to make that final decision on which horse to bet, and, when looking for contenders for multiple race exotics, such as the Pick 3.

We all know that the outside posts can be difficult to overcome in harness racing. Many horses turn in modest looking efforts when they draw a tough post, such as the 7 or 8 on a half mile track, or the 9 and 10 on a one mile track. Because of this post position bias, a handicapper often has to draw a line though those races and rate a horse off its efforts from better post positions.

Here is a simple rule: When evaluating form, look at a horses’ pacelines from the races where it started in the inside half of the race. In other words, if there were 8 horses in the race, look at the horse's starts where it had posts 1 through 4. In the 10 horse races, it would be posts 1 through 5.

In these races, particularly the most recent ones, look for horses that are NO MORE THAN 3 LENGTHS behind at the three-quarters and stretch call. It's simple. We're only rating the horse off its good post position races. And we're marking the lines where it was no more than 3 lengths behind the leader at the three quarters and stretch call. This angle is particularly good on half and five eighth tracks. This includes horses that were on the lead. Try to rate horses off of races they lost, not races they won. This angle was computer database tested by an experienced harness handicapper who posted his results on a popular racing board, paceadvantage.com.

Now keep in mind that I prefer hard-trying horses, horses who have demonstrated some class. These horses aren't that hard to spot. A horse that rarely wins and doesn't race competitively on a consistent basis is pretty easy to see in the past performances. The hard-trying horses are always battling, giving it their all and they are consistent.

One you've found your hard-trying contenders, mark the ones who fit the 3 length profile. I would prefer to see this in their last start, but if they had a bad post last time and didn't get that close, use the most recent race from a good post. Don't use any race where the horse had an excuse, such as a break or any sort of difficult trip. It's better if a horse has several races where it was no more than 3 lengths behind at the three quarters and stretch call.

Horses that fit this criteria have the tactical speed to get within striking distance, which is crucial in harness racing. It also points to current fitness. This simple angle can help you pick more winners and can also increase your R.O.I. And this pattern will point to a lot of winners. I'll include another clue to look for to make this a stronger play. If the horse has a recent final time that's one of the fastest recent final times in the race, that's solid (preferably in its last 3 starts and no more than 30 days back).

One thing about outside posts: If a horse raced from one of the tough outside posts I mentioned, and fits this "No More Than 3 Lengths Behind at the three quarters and stretch call" angle, the horse is usually ready to win. Racing from outside posts is tougher now than ever in harness racing, and horses expend a tremendous amount of energy trying to compete from the outside posts. When I see horses either leave, or charge wide into contention and get within 3 lengths of the leader from the outside posts (or get to the lead), I give these horses extra consideration. Many times horses racing off the pace from these tough posts pace quick middle-halves that are deceptively energy draining.

Try adding these two simple handicapping angles to your strategy: A). Try to bet mostly hard-trying horses that have a touch of class. Look over the past performance lines of horses that win a high percentage and study the profile of a hard-trying horse. The hard-trying horse always fires and makes a bid.  B). Give the edge to horses that got within 3 lengths of the leader (or where leading) at the three quarters and stretch call of their most recent races where they had a good post (in the first half of the field).

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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