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Bob Pandolfo: Knowing when a horse is live
By Bob Pandolfo
I’m not a cynic. Owning racehorses is expensive and trainers are under a lot of pressure, so in my mind, most horses are trying to win. Although it may appear that some drivers are trying harder than others, that’s because they have a sharp horse. A horse that is outclassed or out of form is most likely going to save ground and hope to pick up a piece of the purse.
There are things you can look for that tip off a well-meant effort by an improving horse. One of the best signs that a horse is ready for a top effort is a driver change. My favorite is when a trainer drives the horse for the first start or two off a layoff. Then, in the third start off the layoff, the trainer takes himself off and switches to a catch driver. I also like it when a horse comes off a layoff and has a low-percentage driver for a few starts, then switches to one of the top drivers. This type of driver change is an indication that the trainer feels his horse is ready. Trainers know that if they enlist a top catch driver, the driver may use their horse hard. That’s why some trainers won’t put up a top driver unless they feel their horse is fit enough to fully exert itself.
Many times you’ll see a positive driver change when a horse is dropped in class. The trainer knows that he has a good shot and wants to make the most of it. The top drivers often have their choice of a few horses in the race, so if they get on a horse for the first time, they also feel that the horse is in a good spot.
I also like to look for a sudden improvement in form. For instance, say a horse has several races where it just saves ground. Then in its next start, the horse shows sharp early speed and tires. This is a good sign. Harness racing is much more speed favoring than it used to be. Consequently, the first quarters are often very fast. Trainers know that a horse has to be fit to leave the gate. That’s why sudden improved early speed is a sign that a horse is coming into top form. When a horse is driven more aggressively, it’s usually a good sign. Once a horse is training well and appears to be back in form, the trainer is going to tell the driver to get more aggressive. So even if the horse gets a tough trip and tires, the fact that the connections decided to push the horse is a sign that the horse is sharpening.
Another more subtle thing to look for is a key equipment change. I always check the equipment changes when I’m at the track. Sometimes a horse adds a hood, a blind bridle, or blinkers. These types of equipment changes, coupled with a switch to a more aggressive driver, usually mean that the horse is going to leave the gate. You can catch some good longshots with these angles. Now that there are several different sulkies in harness racing, a switch from a driver who uses one of the older models to a driver who recently purchased one of the new off-set bikes can signal a wake up call.
Sometimes the parimutuel pool can tip you off to a live horse. Look for early money on a horse that has been going off at long odds. Say a horse has been going off at long odds, 15-1 or higher. Then in its next start, the horse races more aggressively but tires. Next time out, the horse opens up as the favorite with a few hundred, or better yet, a few thousand bet on it, but drifts higher as post time nears. Owners or people who work in the barn often bet early when they feel they have a good shot.
Some other things to look for are the more subtle signs of a potential form reversal. I mentioned that improved early speed can often signal a horse that is coming up to a top effort. But really any sort of improved speed can signal a wake-up effort. For instance, say a horse has been lugging around the track and not showing any real acceleration. Then suddenly one night the horse makes a big wide brush approaching the three-quarters, gains ground around the final turn while three wide, but gradually flattens out down the stretch. This is one of my favorite moves because it usually doesn’t look good in the program. Racing wide takes a lot out of a horse, especially if the horse is making a strong move. Many times these big wide brushes through the final quarter get a horse into contention, but the horse fades in the stretch. But the improved acceleration that the horse showed is a sign of a horse that’s sitting on a big effort.
Improved late speed can tip you off in other ways, too. If a horse clears late and is flying at the wire, this is another potential wake-up signal for next time out.
Any sort of improved speed is a positive sign. One of the sneakiest solid efforts is when a horse makes up a chunk of ground through the middle half of the race, the second and third quarters. Many times, this is overlooked because the horse is not in contention and usually weakens in the stretch. When a horse expends a lot of energy prior to the stretch, a weak stretch finish can usually be expected. I like to see a horse gain ground and pace a quick middle half and then come back from a better post with a drop in class next time out. If the horse is a price, it’s a must use in exotics. On Oct. 9, I bet a horse off this angle at Monticello. Please Sweetie had missed by a neck on Sept. 10, then was scratched sick on Sept. 17. She came back on Oct. 1, but drew post 8. She made up eight lengths through the middle half and finished fifth. On Oct. 9, she drew post 5, left the gate, and won at 5-2.
Of course, the drop in class is one of the best longshot angles. Experienced harness handicappers usually know when a horse is dropping out of a particularly tough field. This is an important factor. Some drops in class are much bigger than they appear on paper. Sometimes it pays to go back to the chart, not just the past performances, and look over the names of the horses in the race.
For instance, say that a horse is racing at Yonkers and dropping from a $30,000 claiming race to a $25,000 claimer. I’ve noticed lately that some of the $30,000 claimers were a lot tougher than the $25,000 claimers. I go back to the chart of the race, or a video replay, and I look over the names of the horses. Since I follow Yonkers on a regular basis, I can often tell just by looking over the names if the field was tough. Anyone who follows a circuit closely should be able to do this. You get to know which horses are sharp and which horses are the tough, classy claimers. A fellow I used to work with at Sports Eye years ago, Doug Kaplan, called these tough claimers “classmasters.” If a horse drops out of a race that had a few “classmasters” in it, that could be a much bigger drop in class than it appears on paper. Horses dropping out of tough fields are wake-up threats.
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.
To me, this is the hardest thing about harness racing. I primarily play thoroughbreds but there's so much to like about standardbred racing. The one thing that turns me off from it ,though, is trying to guess trainer'/driver intent. It has WAY too much of an impact in the racing flow as well as the results, and it can be extremely frustrating . Usually everybody is going in the claiming races (on the big tracks), but in those money conditions it's impossible, especially the outside posted horses on half miles and 5/8s.
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