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Bob Pandolfo: Weighing recent form against top form in harness racing
One question I get asked a lot is, "What past-performance line do you use to rate each horse?” “Shape” handicappers tend to concentrate on a horse’s last race. If the horse has a subpar last race, these handicappers will eliminate the horse on the theory that its form is declining.
Then we have “speed” handicappers, who concentrate on a horse’s final times. Some speed handicappers rely on a recent speed rating, such as the horse’s last race or, perhaps, the horse’s best race in its last two or three starts. So, they're less reliant on the horse's last race. So, which is the best approach? Do we use the horse’s last race, the best recent race, or older races?
I think you can make a case for all three. The horse's last race is a good indication not only of current form but of form cycle. Horses who showed improvement in their last start may be headed in the right direction and may show even more improvement in their next start. But few horses put forth their absolute top effort every time out. It's not for lack of trying. Horses are flesh and blood, and sometimes after a strenuous effort, they simply don't have quite as much energy next time out.
But some horses will step up and give a performance similar to a top effort from five or six starts ago. How did that happen? In Thoroughbred racing, the horses don't race as often, so form reversals are much more common than in harness racing. That's why if you're handicapping Thoroughbreds, it's important to analyze both the horse's recent form and what the horse is capable of doing on its best day. Most of my best scores betting on Thoroughbreds have been on horses who finished out of the money last time out.
Thoroughbreds are more susceptible to what we call a "bounce." In 1972, a handicapper named Lawrence Voegele wrote a book called "Professional Method of Winner Selection," then followed it up two years later with a thicker book called "Payoff: A Step-By-Step Course Guaranteed to Make You a Master Handicapper."
In both books, he shows running lines that he prefers. But in "Payoff," he specifically suggested that handicappers avoid horses who had strenuous trips in their last start. He showed running lines that he stayed away from. One focused on a horse who was first or second battling for the lead through the final eighth of a mile and won or lost by less than half a length.
His reasoning was that this type of effort usually resulted in a flat effort the next time out, particularly if the horse came back within two weeks. Although he didn't use the word "bounce," Voegele may have been the first handicapper to point out the risk of betting on horses who come off strenuous efforts, especially if the horse is the favorite.
With horses coming off losses, Voegele preferred what he called "smooth" efforts and showed examples. "Smooth plus" was a horse who gradually gained ground. "Smooth minus" was a horse who was close up early and gradually lost ground.
His theory was that these types of running lines showed that a horse was in good or improving condition but weren't overextending the horse. I agree with Voegele's analysis of running lines for Thoroughbreds, but in modern-day harness racing, we see more bounces than years ago, so now I also use this type of running-line analysis for harness racing.
In harness racing, it's easier to follow form cycles, but some horses will wake up and run back to a previous high. But when this happens, many times there is a clue: a barn change, improvement in its second or third start off a layoff, a key drop in class, a move back to an inside post, or any combination of these factors.
Generally, harness handicappers have to evaluate each horse's form based on at least the last two races. But I've found that many horses will run back to their best figure from their last four starts, particularly within a 30-day period.
Sometimes a horse's form isn't actually tailing off. For instance, this is a typical scenario: A horse is sharp and racing well from inside posts, then gets an outside post and shows little. Next time out, it gets stuck behind dull cover and doesn't enter contention, a trip that's not as bad as it looks on paper. Next time out, the horse gets a good post in a little slower field (a better spot), runs back to its effort from three starts back and wins at a price.
Current-form and form-cycle analysis are part of the handicapping equation, but you have to look at each horse's overall record and class. If the horse fits on class but comes off a disappointing effort, that may not be enough to eliminate it from consideration.
In this situation, you may get attractive odds on a horse that's a legitimate contender. This type of analysis is particularly important if you're betting exotic wagers like the pick three, pick four, trifectas, and superfectas. In these exotic wagers, you have to be a little liberal in how you structure your wagers. If you just use the horses who show a sharp last race, that just won't cut it.
It should be said that emphasis on a horse's last race, its most current form, does produce a higher percentage of winners. But the higher win percentage is offset by the lower odds.
A lot of handicappers focus on a horse's last race, so horses who won or raced well and produced a fast time or speed figure in their last start are usually bet heavily. If you focus on this type of horse, as opposed to an overall evaluation of a horse, you will cash more bets. But with that approach, you are in a sense "laying odds" because the last race is overemphasized and overbet by the public.
When you put more emphasis on prior races, you lower your win percentage, but the odds on those bets are higher. So, instead of laying odds, you're getting odds. The question then becomes, “Which method produces a higher return on investment?”
There is no easy answer. Sometimes you have to go with the last race because the horse is just too sharp to bet against. However, if you learn when to go against current form, such as the bounce prospects I've indentified, you can raise your ROI significantly.
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.