06/20/2013 9:00AM

Bob Pandolfo: Keys to playing favorites

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Golden Receiver, who starts in an elimination for the Ben Franklin at Pocono on Saturday, has 18 wins in 38 starts at the Pennsylvania track.

As a racing writer who writes a lot about betting on horses, I usually advocate looking for overlays. Double-digit winners can provide leverage, especially when used as keys in exotic wagers.

But there can be overlays on short prices, too. At Monticello on Monday, June 17, there was a pacer named KZ BEZZ. This mare had made my list of horses to watch that appears in Harness Eye and on drf.com. The condition of the race was "The Junior Free For All," which is for drivers who have Jr. in their name. The field appeared much weaker than the NW200 field that KZ BEZZ met in her last start, and in that race she had a tough trip and showed an improved performance. Plus she was picking up a catch driver, and she won this race when they ran it last year, wire to wire. When I looked over the race, there were few interesting horses in the race and KZ BEZZ, who was 4-1 on the morning line, looked like a lock to me. I felt that she should be about 3-5 in that field.

But it's Monticello, and horses who look good often get pounded down to 2-5, as they do on most half-mile harness tracks. But I tuned into the race anyway, and KZ BEZZ was a respectable 6-5, so I bet her to win. She wired the field easily, winning by six lengths and paid $4.60. So yes, there can be overlays on favorites.

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As much as we knock favorites, the truth is, in harness racing, there are bettors who bet favorites and actually win. Nowadays most advance deposit wagering companies are offering rebates, some quite generous. We always whine about the high takeout, but these legit U.S.-based rebate shops bring the takeout down to a reasonable level and give you a much better chance of winning, even when betting favorites. Yonkers Raceway has its own advance deposit wagering now, empirecitybets.com, and they plan to offer 8-percent rebates on win bets that are made on Yonkers races. The rebate plan is on hold right now, pending approval from the state, but if it's approved, 8 percent is a good deal.

At most harness tracks the favorites are winning at 40 percent and higher, so evaluating the chances of the favorite is critical. A handicapper has to decide how strong the favorite is and whether or not he's worth taking a stand against. We also have to decide how to weigh the favorite in exotics. For instance, in a pick four, do you use the favorite in all four legs, or only in two?

Here is a checklist of some things I prefer:

1. Favorites who have at least one recent start that was the fastest race, especially if it's over today's track.

2. Favorites who have a trainer and driver who are winning at least 10 percent of the time.

3. Favorites from favorable post positions.

4. Favorites who have ZIP (either early speed or the ability to brush to the lead from an inside post).

5. Favorites who don't show breaks.

I'll go over these prerequisites. Number 1 is interesting, because quite a few favorites do not have one of the fastest recent races over the track. Some people may say that this a silly rule, but if you do any sort of test you'll find that this rule holds up well at most tracks. One thing I'm always cautious of is horses that win in a quick time and then ship to another track. The first thing I do is check to see if the horse has raced at this track in the past (easily available in DRF Harness Eye past performances) and what his record is over the track. If the horse has not raced over the track, be careful. Many horses love certain surfaces, and dislike others. Foiled Again, the richest pacer in North America, is a terrific racehorse who has a 38-percent win percentage. But at the Meadowlands he only has 1 win in 24 starts (4 percent).

This weekend at Pocono Downs, Golden Receiver will be going against Foiled Again and other top-class pacers in the Ben Franklin Pace Eliminations. Golden Receiver often gets credit as a horse that loves the Meadowlands. But he actually has a higher win percentage at Pocono Downs, where he has 18 wins in 38 starts (47%). Golden Receiver has 57 career wins, 43 of those wins came at either Pocono Downs or the Meadowlands. Foiled Again has raced at Pocono 4 times and has 1 win.

Number 2, “Trainer/driver percentages,” needs no explanation. I don't mind betting low-percentage trainers and drivers on longshots, but not on favorites.

Number 3, "Favorable post positions" needs some explanation. Each track has favorable post positions. Let's look at Yonkers. Posts 1 through 5 are clearly the best posts. Post 5, for instance, is winning at 16.6 percent this year, which is nearly double the rate of post 6, three times the rate of post 7, and four times the win rate of post 8. Betting favorites from the least desirable posts is not advisable. Yes, on occasion you may be able to find a decent bet on a favorite from a tough post, but make sure that the horse is a monster, has speed, and is going off at a fair price.

Number 4 is ZIP, which I define as gate speed, or the quick brush that's needed to either quarter-move to the lead or brush to the lead first over. This is especially important on half-mile and five-eighth tracks where a high percentage of winners are leavers, or horses who quarter-move or brush to the lead first over from an inside post.

Number 5, "Prefer favorites that don't show breaks" is an especially good rule if you don't have much hair left on your head.

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.