03/27/2014 9:59AM

Bob Pandolfo: The importance of harness drivers

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Scott Zeron is one of the best drivers from a wagering perspective according to Pandolfo.

One of the best handicapping angles is a "key driver change." My favorite driver change is from a driver that's not a regular catch driver—such as a trainer or owner that drives his own horses—to a top catch driver.

Trying to evaluate a driver change from one catch driver to another is more difficult. But, there's no question that driver changes from an average driver to a top driver can make a big difference. Back on February 6 at the Meadowlands, my Best Bet was a horse named Bolero Andrew. He was dropping in class, getting an improved post and switching to David Miller from a driver who is a fine horseman but not a top catch driver. Bolero Andrew won and paid $5.80. This was what we call a no-brainer. Hall of Fame driver David Miller is 4th all-time in earnings.

Obviously, analyzing driver changes is subjective. I evaluate drivers mainly on what I see with my own eyes. I don't trust the stats. A guy winning at 10% at Yonkers could be just as good as someone who is winning at 20% at Dover Downs. You have to evaluate the competition that the driver faces. The driver's colony at Yonkers is tough.

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I look for drivers that win with longshots. Most drivers look good when they have the best horse. Some harness drivers are overrated and some are underrated. It’s not just ability that makes a top driver. A lot has to do with how you manage your career. I've seen drivers jump around from one track to another and never establish themselves at a home base, which makes it tougher to get good drives. Injuries and bad luck can also come into play.

But from a marketing perspective, I have to wonder how much the drivers really mean to today's sport. When I first started following harness racing, the drivers seemed to be a big part of the attraction. I often went to the track and only bet on Herve Filion. When Carmine Abbatiello came to the Roosevelt/Yonkers circuit, I made more bets on his horses than any other driver. But it wasn't just a betting thing. I really enjoyed watching those guys drive. Strategically, Filion was one of the smartest drivers I've ever seen. And he knew the horses. For instance, he knew which horses he could hurry and which ones he had to rate; and no one rated a horse better.

Abbatiello, in his blazing red silks, was lightning in a bottle. Although known for his front end wins, I actually thought it was more fun watching him race from off the pace, because he would make huge moves with his horses, exploding three wide to go from 6th to 1st. Unlike other drivers, who would pop and stop, his horses wouldn't mind the exertion and would keep on going. Abbatiello could squeeze through the most miniscule opening in the stretch, but I can't remember ever seeing him cause interference. He drove a horse like it was a Porsche.

In New York, the drivers were a colorful group that everyone seemed to talk about. In today's sport, we sometimes force these guys to have a nickname. Let's see, what can we call this one? Back then the names just came. Ben Webster was "Benny The Whip"; William Gilmour was "Buddy"; Merritt Dokey was "Butch"; John Chapman was affectionately known as "Chappie"; Abbatiello was "The Redman"; Lucien Fontaine was "Loosh". To the handicappers at Sports Eye, William Haughton was, "The Master".

These guys were a big part of the sport in New York harness racing. At the track, the salty New York fans booed all of them. But on the street and in the bar rooms, racing fans would go into great detail about their favorite drivers and how talented they were.

This year at the Meadowlands, on Saturday, March 1, the total handle was $4,106,609. It was the first time since April 4, 2009 that the handle had topped 4 million (except for the Meadowlands Pace and Hambletonian).

But it certainly wasn't big name drivers that attracted the attention of the bettors and fans. Meadowlands great and Hall of Famer John Campbell wasn't there. Ron Pierce, another longtime Meadowlands driver and Hall of Famer, was driving at Yonkers. Andy Miller, another top Big M driver, wasn't there. Former Meadowlands leading drivers George Brennan and Brian Sears were also at Yonkers.

On the March 1st card, Stacy Chiodo won with Mighty Young Joe. Jimmy Marohn, Jr. brought in Cobalt Man. Trainer/driver Shaun Vallee brought in two winners, including Our Cullenscrown N, who paid $45.20 with an off-the-pace last second rush. Steve Smith won with Bobjacks Angle A. Andrew McCarthy, who has had a tremendous meet, especially with longshots, brought in two more bombs. Driving Fearless Chi ($37.20), McCarthy, left, tucked, then rated the horse perfectly to a first over win. In the 9th race, McCarthy seemed to be in a hopeless spot while ninth behind terrible cover, but he somehow rallied Rockin Wizard, who finished powerfully in 26 4/5 and paid $62.80.

I have tremendous respect for the drivers. Driving harness horses is a high pressure job and some of these drivers have hectic schedules. And, it’s not the safest job in the world. But I don't need the Meadowlands to have all the top name drivers. In fact, I prefer it the way it’s been this meet. The best bets I've made this meet were on Andrew McCarthy, Jimmy Marohn, Jr. and young Scott Zeron. The big name drivers like Yannick Gingras and Tim Tetrick are great, but they often get overbet and these other guys are bringing in big overlays.

Last Thursday, March 20th, I liked KZ Beach Girl in the eighth race. She was on my list of horses to watch that we publish. I figured I might get 3-1. Jimmy Marohn, Jr. brought her in at $24.80 and it was a beautifully patient drive. Thank you Jimmy!

Saturday night Scott Zeron had four winners that paid $18.80, $18.00, $11.20, and $9.40. I think Zeron has the talent to be the leading driver at the Meadowlands some day. He reminds me of John Campbell, Herve Filion and Brian Sears. Their horses always seem to have so much left and Zeron's horses finish like freight trains. Watch him rate Alex Bullville on the rim in the ninth race at the Meadowlands on March 13. He was parked the mile without cover from post 10, but he saved something for the end and won at 9-2 odds. Another good replay to watch, the first race last Thursday (March 20), Zeron was driving CCs Lover N and he was eighth at the top of the stretch. He won.

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Zeron, who is 24-years-old, is the youngest driver to reach 2,000 career wins and the youngest driver to win the Little Brown Jug, which he accomplished in 2012 with Michaels Power. I'd rate Zeron as one of the top 10 drivers in the sport today. I'm glad he's driving at the Meadowlands.

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.