11/06/2014 12:13PM

Pandolfo: Can you win without picking the winner?

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I can remember the first conversation I had about betting overlaid contenders. It was at the old Sports Eye offices in Great Neck, N.Y., about 37 years ago. Editor-in-Chief Jack Rubin introduced the discussion. His premise was simple: you don't need to pick the winner, just the contenders. A heated debate followed.

The 2014 Breeders Cup was run last weekend, and once again, a plethora of longshots prevailed. The highest win payoffs were $125, $62, $40, and $29. There have been years where you could have made a nice profit betting every horse in the Breeders Cup to win. Every horse, not just the contenders.

Some people take a broadminded approach when betting contentious races. Instead of trying to pick the winner, just rank the contenders, apply an odds line, then bet the big overlays.

Can this approach work all the time, and at all tracks? I used to believe that most of your bets should be on horses that you actually thought had a very good chance of winning, like your top pick. Okay, maybe if your second-best pick is much better odds, bet it. But the idea of ranking a half-dozen or so contenders and only betting the longshot overlays seemed counterintuitive to me.

But after all these years of experience, I think I've seen the proof. Yes, you can win without actually betting your top pick.

I think you have to break things down into a few categories. First of all, you have to separate the longshot tracks from the chalky tracks. The approach can't be exactly the same. You also have to evaluate each track, and each card, differently.

Some of the most contentious harness racing cards of the year are raced during the winter, particularly January, February, and March at the Meadowlands. But other tracks have plenty of longshot winners. Generally speaking, the two turn tracks like Balmoral, the Meadowlands, Mohawk, Woodbine and Hoosier are going to have their share of big payoffs.

The three and four turn ovals tend to be more chalky. But, I still think you can use the contender-value approach on any track. It's a matter of narrowing your guidelines. For instance, in a 10 horse race at the Meadowlands, I think you can list as many as 6 contenders in some of the more competitive races.

At Yonkers, the favorites are winning at 44% this year. But, there are still plenty of competitive races and longshot winners. In an 8 horse field at Yonkers, you may want to focus on four contenders. However, a lot depends on the race. If you find a race difficult to handicap, that's the kind of race that's more likely to produce a big payoff.

Personally, I wouldn't list horses from post 7 or 8 on half mile tracks as contenders except for in rare occasions when there's an outstanding opportunity. I think that any post that wins less than 9% creates a difficult situation for a bettor. There are live longshots from posts that win more than 9%, so it's tough for me to fine value in the low-percentage post positions. But, there are exceptions.

Last Thursday (October 30), a horse named Carolsideal won from post 8 at Yonkers and paid $61.50. This was the type of horse that I normally play and a situation where I would have taken a chance on post 8, but I didn't look over Yonkers that night.

Carolsideal has always been a competitive sort with a touch of class. The pacer is trained by Jeff Dauplaise, who also does the driving. But last Thursday, Carolsideal shipped in to Yonkers from Pocono and got a driver change to Jason Bartlett. As a harness bettor, these are the type of situations that you have to take advantage of. Bartlett is one of the most talented drivers in the sport and Carolsideal figured to go faster with a top catch driver. Bartlett shot him out of the gate and got a perfect trip.

My point is, there are exceptions to every rule. Yes, I rarely bet on horses from post 8 at Yonkers, and with good reason, it only wins 3%. But, you have to keep your eyes open. I often go through harness programs quickly scanning over each horse's last race driver. When I get to a driver that I feel is not a top driver, I look to see who's driving the horse tonight. If it's the same driver, I move on to the next horse. I can scan an entire card in two or three minutes. All I'm looking for are big driver changes. This is one of the best betting angles there is.

Another benefit of betting overlaid contenders is playing the exotics. The best approach is to create an odds line, but if you feel that you're not good at that, just use some common sense. If you've listed four contenders in a 9 horse field and one of them is 20-1, that should be a good bet. Chances are that horses you think are contenders should not be that high. Sometimes you'll find that two of your contenders are gong off at attractive odds, and you can box them in exactas with your top pick.

An interesting thing about handicapping is the best bets are often our third or fourth ranked picks. You can test this theory with public handicappers in the Racing Form or any publication you follow. I know that on my Meadowlands picks, there are many nights where several of my third or fourth ranked picks win and pay good prices and my top pick only wins a couple of races at short prices.

I believe that most handicappers overestimate the chances of the obvious horses. It's natural for a handicapper to land on the favorite or second choice. That's the horse that appears to be the logical winner. Those are the horses that appear the sharpest. But, after the races are over, we often see that the horses that won appeared to be just a bit slower, or not quite as sharp as the favorites. But horses are not machines, and good trips aren’t guaranteed. If the favorite gets a tough trip, and the second choice just isn't as sharp this week, bingo, your third ranked contender wins and pays $14.00. It happens all the time.

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.

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