02/27/2013 12:35PM

Pandolfo: Changes, layoff horses, and drop-downs

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Derick Giwner
Sweet Lou won his North America Cup elimination, but regressed and finished fourth in the final.

Yesterday my wife and I had coffee at Starbucks and I paid with my phone. It's easy. All you do is set up a Starbucks account online, download the Starbucks app to your phone, a barcode displays on your phone, you hold it up to the register, it goes "click" and you're done.

Things change. You either change with the times or get stuck in antiquity.

Racing, both harness and Thoroughbred, has changed. Let's go over some of the changes.

LAYOFFS: In harness racing, horses coming off layoffs used to be an immediate throwout. Not anymore. Last Friday (Feb. 22) at the Meadowlands in the 10th race, Fool's Revenue, a trotter, came off a 12-month layoff and swept the field at 7.70-1 odds. In the next race, Feeling You, a pacing mare, made her first start of the year and paid $11.20 in an A-2 pace. The night before, Thursday, Feb. 21, Day Blue Chip came off a 10-month layoff and paid $5. I picked Feeling You and Day Blue Chip to win. So the rule is, there is no rule. When a horse comes off a layoff you can't automatically dismiss it. You have to evaluate the horse based on class, trainer, and how the horse qualified. All three of these horses were not only logical plays, but they were overlays, especially Fool's Revenue and Feeling You.

In Thoroughbred racing the layoff factor has changed as well. Nowadays not only do a lot of Thoroughbreds win off layoffs, but it's not uncommon to see horses win off long layoffs of a year or more.

In my opinion, in both sports the strategy of using live races to condition a horse simply isn't a common practice anymore. Horseplayers are always whining about the changes to the sport, but this is a good thing. In most races nowadays, all of the horses are trying to win. Years ago many trainers raced their horses into shape, which meant that these horses weren't fit and ready to race.

In Thoroughbred racing it's easy to understand this change. The average Thoroughbred races fewer than 7 times a year. Owning horses is an expensive hobby. It makes sense to have a horse fit and ready to win every time it steps on a track.

But even though the typical harness horse still races often, we've seen that the top stakes horses have many fewer starts each year and in their career. So harness trainers have also adapted this strategy of training their horses to be ready to go. Consequently, not only will you see many horses win off qualifiers, you'll also see a lot of horses win in their second start off a layoff. Years ago many horses didn't hit their top speed until their fourth or fifth start off the bench. And this holds true in the major stakes races, too. Trainers wanted to put a solid foundation into a stakes horse before entering a race like the Hambletonian. Now you'll see horses make only one or two starts before a major race.

In harness racing, I believe that the racing is tougher on the horses now. With the faster bikes, the fractions and final times are much faster and this has to be harder on the horses. So trainers are afraid that their horse is going to burn out before the big race. They'd rather have their horse stepping forward than backwards.

We saw that last year with Sweet Lou in the North America Cup. He was brilliant winning his elimination in his third start of the year. But he regressed off that big effort and he finished 4th in the final. Years ago it seemed to me that Standardbreds didn't "bounce" off of big efforts as often as they do now. But, it's understandable because of the wicked fractions and final times that they go now. To Sweet Lou's credit, he won 8 of 20 starts including the $500,000 Tattersalls stakes at The Red Mile, so he had a solid 3-year-old campaign, winning over a million bucks.

DROP-DOWNS: Another old adage that you can throw out the window is the suspicious drop-down elimination. Years ago when a horse took a sharp drop in claiming value, cagey handicappers would draw a line through the horse. This was the classic sucker bet. Not anymore. With the slot-infused purses, many trainers now drop their horses sharply and the horses win. You see this often in Thoroughbred racing, but it has also become more common in harness racing. Again this goes back to the fact that the horses don't race as often as they used to. If a horse is wearing down, it makes sense to drop and pop, take down the purse, and if the horse is claimed, use the money to claim another horse.

Of course some of these sharp drop-downs are going to be bad bets. But, they are not automatic throwouts anymore. Each situation has to be evaluated separately.

DEAD ON THE BOARD: Years ago I remember hearing players say, "You can draw a line through that one, he's dead on the board." Not anymore. Last week at The Meadowlands, in three nights of racing, there were winners that paid $142, $122, $46, $42, $26, $25, $22, plus many other double-digit winners. At Yonkers last week, there was a $64 winner, three horses that paid over $40 ($44, $42, $41), and five horses that paid over $20 to win. At Balmoral in four nights of racing they had $90 and $56 winners, plus $33, $32, $32, $31, $30, $25, $25, and $20 winners.

Years ago it was rare, especially in harness racing, to see horses pay more than $35 or so. Not anymore.

THE SMART MONEY COMES IN LATE: There was a time when as soon as the early money was displayed on the tote board I would jot down the exacta payoffs for each horse in the race. This was called "exacta charting." I would then check to see if there was late money coming in. Those of us who followed the money were looking for horses that were getting heavily bet below what we expected. Some people would say that these horses were "underlays." The typical scenario would be a horse that figured to be 8-1 would go off at 5-2.  But they often won, so in reality they were overlays.

I don't know if I believe in smart money anymore. This is certainly a debatable subject. Let's analyze some recent betting on Meadowlands races, since the Meadowlands is where most of the harness money is being bet these days.

Some of you know that you can get my Meadowlands picks at www.ustrotting.com. I've been doing these picks since 1996. I give my top 4 contenders and my odds line, which is based on what I think each horse will go off at.

And, by the way, this is something that I wish more public handicappers would provide. In my opinion, an odds line is as important, if not more important, than comments. In most cases the morning line is not a suitable betting line. The morning line is based on what the linemaker thinks the horses will go off at. My line is based on what I think each horse's chances are. And, furthermore, the morning line tends to be too generic. For instance, most morning-line makers will make a horse 5-2 or 3-1 odds even though it's obvious that the horse will be even money. Why not make the horse even money? With my line, you not only get a pretty good idea of what the odds will be, but you can use the line to catch good overlays.

That's the good news. The bad news is in some races my line stinks. I'll admit it, sometimes I'm way off. At the Meadowlands, some of the races are so competitive that making an odds line is difficult. But, that makes my line all the more important.

MEADOWLANDS, THURSDAY, FEB. 21

Let's see how the money came in as compared to my line. In the first race, I thought for sure that Real Comfort would be the favorite and that was my top pick. Real Comfort went off at 3-2 but Cheyenne Miriam also went off at 3-2 and was the betting favorite. Cheyenne Miriam was my 2nd pick in the race. It's hard to evaluate the line because the other favorite in the race was scratched, but I expected Real Comfort to be a clear favorite with Cheyenne Miriam around 3-1 or 7-2. In this case, the public had it right, Cheyenne Miriam won easily as the 3-2 favorite. Was this "smart money?"

The 6th race was interesting. I picked Gallant Major third at 7-2. Gallant Major went off at 4-5, showed speed but finished off the board. This time the bettors got it wrong but I didn't have the winner. However, the fact that I ranked this horse third and made it 7-2 and it went off at 4-5 is telling you that if you respect my line, you had to think that Gallant Major was a bad bet at 4-5.

In the 9th, I made New Zion my top pick at 5-2. He won and paid $12. Score one for me, and in this case, the public, or "smart money," depending on how you look at it, was wrong.

I thought the 10th race was one of the most interesting races of the night. I picked Image Of Dawn and made him 7-5. I made my next highest-ranked horse (my 2nd pick) 9-2. When I have a large gap like that it’s a clear indication that in my mind Image Of Dawn had a big advantage. The public and I were both right here but my line pointed out that Image Of Dawn was the class of the field.

Looking back at last week at the Meadowlands, there were 10 "smart money" favorites and only three of them won. The favorites are winning at 36% at the Meadowlands, so the smart money was wrong by 6 percentage points. I point this out because often when a horse that's not the morning-line favorite wins as the favorite you'll hear people say that you need to follow the money. Some horse players truly believe that there is "smart money" being bet by insiders, such as the horsemen, owners, or professional gamblers. I don't believe that. In fact, I believe just the opposite. Your best chance of winning is to try to beat the public. As I've shown here, the public made several mistakes, either making the wrong horse the favorite, or over betting the favorite. Every time that happens there are good bets, overlays, in the race. These are the horses you want to bet.

Times change, but one thing remains the same: If you consistently bet on overlays, you'll win.

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.