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Bob Pandolfo: Speed is a need for these tracks
Harness racing started to become more speed favoring way back in the 1980's. But, according to my track bias reports that are published in Harness Eye, 2012 was a breakout year for early speed. Last year, more racing cards produced a speed bias than any year in the past 30 years. And so far this year, front-end speed is even stronger than last year. Keep in mind that tracks are usually more speed favoring from the spring through the fall.
For handicappers, this is an extremely important factor that must be carefully evaluated. Some of these tracks are not racing now but I’ll include them for the task of evaluating shippers.
Here's something you can watch for when handicapping speed-biased tracks. You know who the aggressive drivers are. The ones who like to leave the gate. When they get on a horse that's in good form and has a good post position, they're going to look to leave unless there is potent speed drawn inside of them.
Here is a list of non-mile tracks that I follow and some general observations that you should keep in mind.
DOVER DOWNS is a speed-favoring track that has become more speed favoring the past couple of years. Even though it's a five-eighths track, Dover plays more like a half-mile track.
HARRINGTON: Half-mile track has definitely become more speed favoring and is probably the most speed-biased track in the country. Post 1 is winning at 22.7% so far this year. Post 8 is winning at 2.1%. At Harrington, you have to include the 1 horse in most exacta boxes and avoid posts 6 through 8. Stick with horses that you feel can leave the gate.
FREEHOLD is a speed-favoring half-mile track that has also become more speed favoring the past couple of years. Post 1 is winning at 25% this year. Posts 6, 7, and 8 combined are winning at only 16%. Stick with leavers from posts 1 through 5.
YONKERS has become increasingly speed favoring the past couple of years. Post 1 is winning at 20.6%. At Yonkers, certain drivers and trainers win a very high percentage, and this is an important handicapping factor to consider. Brian Sears is winning at 25% and several trainers also have gaudy win percentages.
MONTICELLO: This track used to be one of the more closer-friendly half-mile tracks, probably because it has a slower surface, which gives closers more time to catch up. Compared to the other half-mile tracks listed I would say that it is less speed favoring, but in 2012-13 the track is definitely more speed favoring than it used to be. Post 1 is winning at 18%, post 8 is at 4%. Monticello is pretty well balanced between posts 1 through 5.
SARATOGA: This track fluctuates, perhaps because of the cool nights. It is definitely more speed favoring the past couple of years, but it's more like Monticello and not as speed favoring as the other half-mile tracks. Post 1 is winning at 17.5%, post 8 at 6.5%. Keep in mind that half of the races are won by posts 1 through 3.
TIOGA DOWNS: This five-eighths track was one of the few tracks that I chart that did not become more speed favoring in 2012. Hopefully that will continue this year because this track has some pretty exciting racing.
MAYWOOD is more speed favoring this year. Because it starts the races 200 feet back, post 8 is winning at 6.3%; not that bad. But this track is definitely speed biased now.
THE MEADOWS is a five-eighths track with a slanted gate, and generally speaking it is the least speed favoring five-eighths track. The surface is slower than most tracks, and between the slower times and the slanted gate, it makes for competitive racing and a track where closers and stalkers have a decent chance. Like Tioga Downs, the Meadows is one of the few half-mile or five-eighths tracks that does not appear to be much more speed biased this year. The best posts are 4 and 5.
HARRAH'S PHILADELPHIA has a slanted gate, but is much more speed favoring than it was the first couple of years it was opened. This track is dominated by horses that leave the gate or quarter-move from posts 1, 2 and 3.
POCONO: This lightning-fast track has also become more speed favoring. I saw a big difference between 2011 and 2012; many more speed-biased nights last year than the prior year. The trend so far this year is speed bias. Bet the leavers. Like most five-eighths tracks, posts 1 though 6 are by far the best posts.
NORTHFIELD is another track that has become more speed favoring. This track used to have some of the most exciting action in harness racing with all sorts of huge wide backstretch brushes. But the speed favoring sulkies finally caught on here and now we see many more winners that leave the gate; the industry trend. Now that Ohio is getting slot machines, I would love to see track management make some changes to bring back the action and flow. They should try banning all off-centered sulkies and go back to something like the Tel-Star. When the drivers were using the Tele-Star, or some of the older, less-speed-favoring bikes, the racing was terrific here.
The one-mile tracks like Balmoral and the Meadowlands give closers a chance, with Balmoral being the least speed-favoring track that races on a regular basis. I do expect that the major stakes races at the Meadowlands will favor speed, which has been the case for the past 10 years or so, but at least closers have a chance in the claiming and conditioned events.
You can use these evaluations when handicapping and betting each particular track. But, this information can also be useful when evaluating shippers. For instance, a sustained-style horse that likes to grind and finish will have a better chance of winning at the Meadows or Tioga Downs. So if a horse that has been finishing well but falling short over a speed-biased track ships in to a less-biased track, it could be a good bet. And of course this works the other way. If a horse is showing speed and getting nipped at the Meadowlands or a track like the Meadows, it should be tough to catch from a good post at one of the more speed-favoring tracks.
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.
I'll repeat...the best way to help negate this problem is thru the classification systems. Instead of 'Non-winners 5000 L 5' at Philly, have C-1/C-2 handicap....instead of 'Nw 175000 L5', have B-1/B-2 handicap. The same applies for claimers and 'Nw races' (10000/12500 cl hcp...Nw2R/Nw3R hcp). It won't entirely make everything equal, but then again, who would want that?...not I...If all horses/drivers/trainers were equal, we'd be flipping quarters (not using our tiny little grey cells) to make our selections...
Passing lanes have contributed to the inside biases. It is normal to sit in a 3 hole nowadays, so the flow starts from 4th or 5th which is way too far to overcome. The only way to reverse this trend is to remove the passing lane.
Not sure I buy "speed favoring" as oppsed to "post favoring." Fast braking horses out of 7 and 8 holes on short tracks tend to burn out after working hard for the lead and slow braking horses out of 1 and 2 holes get buried early. Said differently, outside posts tend to kill the chances of most horses, even speed horses, whereas inside posts tend to increase the chances of most horses except for the slow braking ones. Bottom line is that post position is key, not speed out of the gate.