02/09/2012 5:16PM

Bob Pandolfo: Harness Racing: Track Biases

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Last year someone emailed me and asked me what criteria I use when compiling my track bias observations that appear each week in Harness Eye and on DRF.com. His question was something like, “Do you compute how many lengths behind the leader the winner was at the half?”

No. Call me a simpleton but I don’t compute anything. If front runners are winning, I call it a speed bias. If closers are winning, I call it a closer’s bias. If a particular style does not appear to be dominant, I call it “no bias.”

I guess I hail from the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) school of thinking. As you may know, the Meadowlands banked the turns this year. The idea was to make the track more like it was years ago, when the turns were banked and closers did well. According to my records, over the first 14 nights of racing, I have rated the track as + closers seven times and ++ closers five times. On two nights, I rated the track as having “no bias.”

To clarify, + closers means that the track favored closers; ++ closers means that the track strongly favored closers; +++ closers would mean that the track extremely favored closers. If I rate a track +++ closers, that would mean that almost every race was won by a closer; if I rate a track +++ speed, that would indicate a night where almost every race was won by a leaver. That strong of a bias is rare.

So after the first 14 racing cards at the Meadowlands, I rated 12 of the nights as favoring closers.

I went back and checked the first 14 racing cards from last winter at the Meadowlands to see how I rated the bias. Last year, I had three of the first 14 nights rated as + closers. The other 11 cards were “no bias.” This year, according to my analysis, five of the first 14 cards were rated ++ closers. Last year through the same period there were no nights rated ++ closers.

On January 27, a Friday night, I rated the track ++ closers. There were no wire-to-wire winners that night. When there were less than three wire-to-wire winners on the card I rated the track ++ closers, except once on February 2 there were two wire-to-wire winners and I rated the track + closers. When there were three wire-to-wire winners, I rated the track + closers. When there were four or more wire-to-wire winners, I rated the track as having no bias.

Now to be honest with you, I do look at other factors when I analyze the track bias. Here is what I look for in order of importance:

1) How many horses went wire-to-wire. The way I view this, if a horse leaves the gate, gets the lead and wins, I call that a wire-to-wire win. I don’t care if the horse gets the lead on the first turn or at the half. If a horse quarter-moves and gets the lead at the quarter or past the quarter but before the half, I count that as a wire-to-wire win. Technically, a quarter-move winner is not really a “wire-to-wire” win, but for my purposes (which is to see if speed is holding), it works.

2) How many leavers won.

3) How many first-over horses won.

4) How many horses that had covered trips won from off the pace.

Occasionally I will rate a track as + speed even if only a few horses go wire-to-wire. This is more common on half-mile or five-eighth size tracks. The scenario is this: most of the races are won by horses that either left the gate or went first-over and brushed to the lead. For instance, say that on a 12-race card, there are four wire-to-wire winners, six horses won off pocket trips and two horses went first-over, took the lead at the three-quarter and won. To me that’s a speed-favoring track because not a single horse rallied to win from off the pace; 10 of the 12 winners left the gate and the other two winners went first-over. I don’t consider first-over winners as “off-the-pace” winners. When a horse goes first-over it challenges for the lead, so to my way of thinking, that horse is part of the pace and should not be classified as a closer.

There’s one other thing I look at besides the four factors I listed. At some tracks there are cards that are very chalky. For example, in 12 races, 10 favorites win and eight of the favorites are odds-on favorites. There are six wire-to-wire winners and four pocket winners, all odds-on favorites from inside posts. In a situation like that, I will most likely call it as a “no-bias” track because the main reason why the speed was holding up was because the drivers that had the best horse left the gate. The track didn’t help the horses go wire-to-wire; the horses went wire-to-wire because they were tons the best. The idea of keeping tabs on bias is to ascertain if the track itself is biased. Naturally, in a situation like that, it’s a subjective decision on my part. Consequently, another observer may not agree with me.

When looking at the Meadowlands this meet, another thing to consider is the weather. This winter has been unseasonably warm, and that usually results in a more speed-favoring track. The fact that closers have performed well is further proof that the newly-banked turns have helped the closers.

At Yonkers Raceway, the bias has changed as well. In December over 14 nights of racing, I had four nights rated as + closers, nine nights rated as “no bias” and one night rated as + speed. That was when they raced at a mile and a sixteenth. In January, with the races back to one mile and starting close to the first turn, after 14 nights I have eight rated as + speed, five rated as no bias and one rated as + closers. The track is much kinder to speed horses since it went back to the one-mile distance.

What does this all mean? If you see a horse try to go wire-to-wire at the Meadowlands on a ++ closers night and the horse only loses by a few lengths, that horse is very sharp, especially if the fractions were honest or quick. Many standardbreds are versatile horses and they can race from on- or off-the-pace. Often in a situation like this, the next time out the driver will take the horse back, race from off-the-pace and score an upset win. The person who isn’t a sophisticated handicapper and doesn’t read Harness Eye is not going to bet on that winner because he’ll think that the horse “quit” with no excuse in its last race.

There’s no substitute for knowledge. The professional bettors keep detailed trip and track-bias notes for every race on every card. They’re prepared. They have the information that doesn’t appear in the program. And of course, they read Harness Eye.