02/13/2013 11:59AM

Bob Pandolfo: Hints for the recreational bettor, Part 1


Most people work hard for their money. But over the years we've seen a shift in our culture away from a frugal life style. In fact, each generation seems to spend money more imprudently than the last. One of my sons took his girlfriend to see a popular young comedian a few years ago. The show ran about 90 minutes. The tickets were $125 each. Talk about an underlay. I've seen some of the greatest entertainers of all time for fewer than 20 bucks.

My parent’s generation, "the greatest generation," according to Tom Brokaw, grew up during the depression and World War II and most were careful with their money. They knew that things could change quickly and believed in saving something for a rainy day. Because of their more prudent lifestyle, you'd think that they wouldn't embrace gambling. But many men of that generation became racing fans and harness and thoroughbred racing boomed. And then when they were exposed to casino gambling in Las Vegas, and later in Atlantic City, the women got involved too and casino gambling took off, mainly fueled by the World War II generation.

But I still feel that my parent’s generation understood value, even when it came to gambling. Harness racing in New York, for instance, had a pretty good churn rate with only 34% winning favorites at Roosevelt and Yonkers and plenty of logical overlay winners. We moved to Long Island when I was 10 and I met a lot of people who liked to go to Roosevelt Raceway. They saw it as a fun night out. They would box a few horses in exactas and back then it wasn't that unusual to hit an exacta that paid between $50 and $100, which would pay for part or all of the evening.

When Atlantic City opened, the casinos enticed the World War II generation with discounts on meals, low room rates, free buffets, cheap transportation, free parking, and other comps. That combined with a low takeout on the slot machines and low minimums on blackjack proved to be good value for that generation and casino trips became a regular part of their lifestyle.

So once again, it always comes down to value. Gambling is a form of entertainment and any gambling establishment that makes people feel that they're getting good entertainment value has a big chance to be successful.

If you're going to bet horses, getting good value is more important than ever, because a dollar doesn't stretch as far as it used to.

Some horseplayers are careful about their wagering. They take a serious approach to handicapping and select good value wagers. But many bettors take a lackadaisical approach. I remember going to off-track betting centers years ago and seeing people bet horses without using any form of past performances, just the entries! These haphazard bettors rationalize their substandard approach because they claim to be "recreational" gamblers. They just want action. But gambling should be fun, and losing isn't fun.

Most horseplayers are recreational gamblers; they're not trying to make a living betting horses. But there's a big difference between a recreational gambler and a reckless gambler.

Let’s get into a few ideas on how you can be a recreational gambler who has fun but comes out ahead. All of these principles can be generally applied to thoroughbred racing as well, although I'm going to give you some specifics involving local harness tracks. Today we’ll focus on trends and bias. Tomorrow I’ll touch on maximizing your returns and different wagering options.

Current trends or bias: Some things work well in certain conditions, but can fall apart quickly if conditions change. For instance, track bias. Let’s look at Yonkers Raceway. Generally speaking, Yonkers, like most half-mile tracks, is speed favoring. But sometimes it gets into a trend where closers are doing okay for while. Other times the track becomes strongly speed favoring. I'm writing this on Tuesday, February 12, and the current track bias at Yonkers is intensely speed-favoring. In the month of February, Yonkers has contested 72 races over 6 nights. During this time span, posts 6 through 8 have accounted for a total of 4 wins, only 6%. Since the beginning of the year, post 7 is only winning at 2.5%. These are astonishingly low percentages.

Now in my opinion, Yonkers, like most half-mile tracks, has become a track that appeals to bettors who are holdouts from the old days: the hard-core, old school, half-mile-track diehards.  I understand that, because I've always had a fondness for half-mile-track racing, and Yonkers in particular, so I've tried to adjust to the inside speed bias and high percentage of winning favorites.

Right now at Yonkers you simply can't bet anything outside of posts 1 through 5, at least until the current inside speed bias ends. This has to be followed closely on a night-to-night basis. With the current trend, here's what I would recommend. First, when you're handicapping for the win spot, don't even consider any horse from posts 6, 7, or 8. Some will win, eventually, but there have been many nights where every race on the card was 1 through 5. Also, the races are dominated by leavers. So give extra credit to any horse that has shown the ability to leave the gate. Also, post 1 is winning at over 21% and trips-out a lot with easy pocket trip wins. This means that even if the one horse appears a bit below some of the other horses, in terms of speed or current form, you have to upgrade its chances. Front runners and pocket trips are preferred, but first over horses can win if they're in good form. Any other trip right now is a bad trip. If you are tempted to bet a horse from the outside posts, it must fit two rules: 1). It must have early speed. 2). It must be a big overlay or longshot.

Naturally you have to watch the first couple of races to see if it looks like the trend will change and the track will become less speed biased. Yonkers has sort of zig-zagged back and forth the past few years. It becomes intensely speed favoring for several weeks, then it can suddenly become a fairer surface with some closers winning.

These types of trends have to be followed carefully on all tracks. The Meadowlands so far has been pretty much what you would expect. After 19 nights, I have called 6 nights + closers, 12 nights no bias, and only one night + speed. Overall, compared to most harness tracks, it's a closer's track. The banking of the turns that they added last year has paid off, there are far more closers rallying wide to win than in prior years. In fact, it's more like it was in the 1980's, when the turns were banked. Before last year, when horses rallied wide they looked like they were going backwards as they turned the corner. This year you can see the horses rallying wide and gaining ground as they turn for home, a significant improvement.

But the most pleasant surprise at the Big M is the flow, which has been consistently solid this year. I don't think it will ever be as good as it used to be, unless they go back to slower bikes. You're not going to see four or five lead changes like years ago. But compared to most harness tracks, the outside flow at the Meadowlands has been good. The first over horse pulls later than they did years ago, because the drivers are reluctant to go first up, but in most of the races the first over horse is reaching the leader and taking the lead as the other outside horses continue up into contention. Unfortunately, when the warm weather sets in, it hurts the outside flow, especially in the higher class races and major stakes races. That's why winter racing at the Meadowlands is so good. Many of the summer stakes races have disappointed because a horse gets to the lead and no one challenges. During the summer the faster splits make it much harder to develop a good second tier flow.

Outside flow is crucial to harness races. Without a consistent outside flow the races are boring and uninviting to the average racing fan. In my opinion, any track that does not have a consistent outside flow that preferably gets moving before the half mile pole had better make some changes to improve flow or its days are numbered.

Click here for part 2 with thoughts on maximizing your returns.

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.