10/23/2013 4:29PM

Bob Pandolfo: Tips for the casual player

Bob Pandolfo

Over the years I've written hundreds of columns examining handicapping under a microscope. This involves detailed analysis, carefully weighing all the factors such as time, pace, position, trips, drivers, trainers, class, individual fractions, and more. But many harness fans are not going to take the time to study video replays or spend hours pouring over charts and past performances. The fact is, many fans are casual bettors who only play the horses once in a while. If you go to the track or bet online/off-track a few times a year, or even a few times a month, you're probably not devoting the time to handicapping that a serious gambler would.

You'll often hear that professional gamblers spend an enormous amount of time handicapping. This often starts with watching the races live, then studying the result charts and re-watching the video replays. The pros are looking for horses that are rounding into form, or have "hidden" form. You may be surprised to hear that form could be hidden. It happens. Hidden form usually means that a horse had a trip that was much tougher than it appears on paper. This could be because the horse was lost ground behind a tiring horse or was following a dull horse and had to race wide (closer to the middle of the track) a long time. Sometimes the form is hidden because the chartcaller made a mistake. For instance, say a horse leaves from post 8 and is parked the first quarter right up with the leader but can't get past. The driver then eases back to take a tuck in fourth, but the chartcaller doesn't give the horse an "out" sign at the quarter call. In this case, the past performances will show that at the quarter the horse was fourth and inside. Anyone who saw the race will know that not only was the horse outside for the entire first quarter, but it was actually second and then took back to 4th. So the horse was used much harder than it appears. Things like that happen.

Professional gamblers love hidden trips. They're always looking for an edge and the best edge is value. If a horse's form is better than it looks on paper, then the odds will often be higher than they should be.

As a professional handicapper, I take pride in the selections I provide for the public. For instance, when I handicapped the Breeders Crown card for the USTA last week, I watched several replays and essentially saw each horse's last race at least twice. I wanted to make sure that I didn't miss anything.

But, again, most people don't have the time to go over each race with a fine tooth comb. And now I'm going to contradict everything I just said.

There's a certain amount of deception in handicapping. For instance, many handicappers watch the races and get excited when they see a horse get boxed in. They get even more excited if the horse clears late and is moving well. They feel that this gives them an edge because the trip will be misleading in the past performances. In other words, the horse is sharper than it appears in paper.

But the reality is, this often doesn't mean much, if anything at all. A lot of handicapping factors, theories, angles, etc., pale in comparison to the one simple fact that in harness racing the fastest horses usually win. And in regards to angles, a “positive” driver change is far and away the strongest angle. When evaluating final time, the most common reason for a horse suddenly going faster than form is a positive driver change.

The other strongest handicapping factor is simply “class”, which horse usually wins against this type of competition. At the Breeders Crown last Saturday night at Mohegan Sun Pocono, there were several horses that looked almost impossible to beat. Bee A Magician, for instance, had final times that towered over her rivals and she had not lost a race all year while racing against the same trotters.

My point is that if you're a casual bettor who only plays once in a while, all is not lost. Speed (final time) and Class trump everything, and positive driver changes are far and away the best handicapping angles.

As a casual player, all you have to do is eliminate all horses that do not have one of the best recent final times in the race. Only look at the last 30 days. As for evaluating class, it is not that difficult. Look at today's race class and eliminate any horse that has not beaten, or narrowly missed, against similar horses in the past 30 days. And then see if there are any positive driver changes that could move a horse up. One more thing, eliminate any horse that starts from a post position that has a win-rate of less than 8%.

I'll explain something about post positions. In my opinion, a casual bettor should rarely bet the low-percentage posts, such as posts 7 and 8 on half mile tracks. To be able to differentiate between a viable contender and a horse that has little chance from these tough posts requires a great deal of expertise. And frankly, even many very good handicappers hurt their bottom line by betting on horses from low percentage posts.

Believe or not, there are so many bad handicappers, that if you follow these four simple steps to narrow a field down to a few contenders, you'll be way ahead of more than half of the people betting the race.

Once you have the race narrowed down to three to four main contenders, you can analyze the odds and look for value. In some contentious races, it will be difficult to narrow a field down to a few contenders. These are races you pass.

The final and most important piece of the puzzle is the odds. Any casual handicapper who understands the need to get good value will have a tremendous edge on most of the public.

In some ways, people are like pack horses. We follow the herd. My father was a stock broker and he always emphasized that in order to have a realistic chance of making a profit in stocks, you had to be a contrarian, buying stock in a bear market when the prices were low and dropping. The same applies to betting horses. Following the masses to the favorites is rarely profitable.

So if you're a casual player, key in on the strongest indicators, and remember the most important factor of all, get good value. Be a contrarian, don't follow the pack. Find the main contenders and bet the ones that are going off at higher odds. If you avoid overly contentious races and pick your spots carefully, even a casual player can hold his own and show a profit, all while enjoying a fun night of entertainment.

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.