01/14/2015 9:05PM

Pandolfo: Evaluating fitness via final quarters


The fine line between winning and losing is often fitness. Perhaps the best way to evaluate a horse's condition is to watch how it finishes in the stretch.

If you're more of a past performance handicapper, as opposed to a visual handicapper, the last quarter is usually a good indication of form going forward. But it does require careful analysis.

At the Meadowlands last Saturday (January 10), a 4-year-old gelding named Company Man shipped in from Woodbine to race in the Escort Series for 3- and 4-year-olds. At the end of his 3yo season in December, Company Man had come into good form, winning two of his last four starts while taking a new lifetime mark of 1:51 3/5 in on December 26.

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Let's evaluate his final quarters from his last four starts, starting with his most recent race. I put his three quarter time in parenthesis. Here are the numbers:

Dec. 26 -  :29 (1:22 3/5)

Dec. 19 -  :27 3/5 (1:25 2/5)

Dec. 12 -  :27 (1:25 2/5)

Dec. 6   -  :27 2/5 (1:25 1/5)

At first glance, the 29-second final quarter in his last start may seem to be a sign of decline. However, Company Man was used hard brushing to the lead at the half and he went to the three quarters in 1:22 3/5. As you can see, in his prior three starts he had gone to the three quarters in either 1:25 1/5 or 1:25 2/5.

On December 26, the track variant was about the same as it was in his prior starts. Yet his three quarter time was almost three seconds faster. In the races where he finished in the :27 range, he raced off the pace from outside posts. In his December 26th start, he drew a better post, post 5, and the driver decided to get aggressive. Because he used so much more of his energy to take and maintain the lead through a fast pace, he understandably paced a slower final quarter. Coming home in :29 was actually a strong finish considering the brisk pace.

Sometimes horses will pace fast last quarters after saving ground along the inside behind a slow pace. That's not hard to do. With Company Man, his :27 final quarters in his prior starts were noteworthy because he was closing from outside posts. Therefore, he was wide for part of the final half, and three wide for much of the last quarter, including all or part of the final turn. The further a horse is from the rail, the more energy it's using up. Basically, a wide trip equates to a longer mile.

In his first start at the Meadowlands, Company Man left from post 8, tucked 5th, went first over, brushed to the lead past the half and paced a :27 1/5 final quarter to win in 1:51 4/5. He's one of the top contenders in the Escort Series.

When evaluating a horse's fitness, make sure that you weigh it's finish to what it did prior to the stretch. If you watch the races live, or watch the replays, take note of the wide trips. Many horses have to move three and sometimes four wide all or part of the final quarter. This means that the horse is three wide around the final turn. The longer the horse is wide, the harder it is on the horse, especially around turns. Also, take note of how the horse is moving while it's three wide.

For instance, let's say that the race is on a half mile track. A horse is third over and the second over horse moves three wide at the three quarters. The third over horse then follows its cover three wide into and around the final turn. But the horse barely keeps up to its cover and basically doesn't gain any ground around the turn. Then in the final sixteenth as the pace slows, the horse passes a few tired horses. Unless the race was exceptionally fast, this was a decent effort, but not one that stands out.

Looking at a similar scenario, but this time the horse moves three wide with authority around the final turn, gaining ground on the leaders, and still finishes steadily in the stretch. These big three wide moves on the final turn are very difficult. If you don't believe me, go out to your local high school or college and run some laps around the track. On the second lap, take the final turn four or five wide. Remember that the horses have sulkies on, so this creates a greater distance from the inside. For a human to duplicate a standardbred's three wide trip, we'd have to be five or six paths off the inside. But even at four paths, you'll find it exhausting, especially if you try to accelerate around the turn.  There is no comparison in the amount of energy used up.

There are harness drivers that excel with closers, like Brian Sears, Jimmy Morrill, Jr., and John Campbell, for instance. They have an innate sense of how much energy their horse has left. Consequently, unless they think they're sitting behind a monster, they'll save ground as long as they can because they know that if they don't, the horse will run out of steam in the stretch. Of course, some drivers save ground but wait a little too long and finish third. These top off-the-pace drivers have that knack of knowing just when to say go.

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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.