07/18/2012 4:14PM

Pandolfo: Finding chinks in the armor of big favorites

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When there is a weak favorite in a race, there are overlays. But the best situation is when an odds-on favorite is a vulnerable favorite. A horse that is 2-5 has about 71 percent of all the money in the pool bet on it. This inflates the odds of the other horses. If the 2-5 shot really is a lock, then you could make a case that the other horses are underlays. But sometimes good detective work can uncover weakness.

On Thursday, July 5, at the Meadowlands, a trotter named Ellen’s Isle went off as a 3-10 favorite. She was dropping in class and 5-2 on the morning line. She had raced four times this year and made a break in three of the starts. I felt that she should be 3-10 to break, not win. But in her qualifier, at the fast Gaitway track, the connections had added hopples, and Ellen’s Isle drew off to win her qualifier by 11 lengths.

Improved qualifiers in hopples can certainly signal a potential for improvement. That same night, I picked a $61.80 winner at the Meadowlands that also was adding hopples. But the time to take a shot on the “hopples on” angle is when the odds are attractive, not at 3-10.

In the Ellen’s Isle race, I picked the $24.40 winner, R Sam. My reasons for picking R Sam were simple. First of all, I wanted to go against the chronic breaker Ellen’s Isle, who figured to be a big underlay. Yes, she had the big qualifier, but there’s a big difference between winning a qualifier and winning a regular race. I’ll have more on that later. R Sam had two angles going for him that I’ve used successfully before – he is not a breaker and he can leave.

In the 10-horse field, five of the trotters had made a break in their last start. In a race where there figures to be several breakers, the best place to be is on the lead and out of trouble. R Sam figured to be on the lead, and he had the ability to stay flat. He also was coming off a solid two-move placing.

If often it amazes me when I see the odds on some favorites. Who was betting this horse? Why would anyone bet a trotter that had made breaks in 75 percent of her starts this year, two right at the start of the race, when the potential payoff was a paltry $2.60?

But sometimes even quality horses are vulnerable bets. In the Yonkers Trot on Saturday, July 7, Googoo Gaagaa went off 1-5 and was off the board. The fast trotter made two breaks in the race. But if you read my last column, you may recall that I tried to tip you off. Here is part of what I wrote: “In his world-record performance at Pocono Downs on June 23, it appeared to my eyes that Googoo Gaagaa momentarily switched into a pace down the backstretch. If you watch the replay, you can see that his gait was definitely off at one point, and that could pose a problem around four turns at Yonkers . . .  if he is pushed and the pace is hot, it will be interesting to see if he has any problems maintaining his trotting gait.”

Here at drf.com/harness, we don’t publish this stuff for our own amusement. Our ultimate goal is to provide solid information to help you make good decisions at the windows. In my opinion, this is the best harness racing site on the Internet.

When I decide whether I’m going to back a heavy favorite, one of the things I look for is a chink in the armor. When I saw Googoo Gaagaa get rough-gaited at Pocono Downs, I knew almost immediately that I was going to take a shot against him in the Yonkers Trot. I bet Market Share, who finished a game third at 15-1. I didn’t have the winner, but Market Share was a good bet in the race, in my opinion.

Last Saturday night, I went against Googoo Gaagaa again in the Stanley Dancer Memorial at the Meadowlands. I liked Possess The Will (5-2) the best, but my second choice Little Brown Fox won and paid $49.60, one of the biggest overlays of the year. Googoo Gaagaa broke again.

A few weeks ago in the North American Cup at Mohawk, I picked Thinking Out Loud to upset the 1-2 favorite Sweet Lou. Jay Bergman and I both picked him for Harness Eye.

I’ll tell you why I was not sold on Sweet Lou. First of all, let me say that Sweet Lou is a heck of a colt, so it wasn’t as if I thought he was a bad favorite. Sweet Lou deserved to be the favorite, but some things about the elimination race the week before stuck out to me. Sweet Lou won in a very fast 1:47 4/5 and was used hard through a torrid middle half to get the lead. That was a big mile, and the truth is horses often do regress off of big efforts. Handicappers call this regression a bounce. In my opinion, harness horses bounce more frequently then they did years ago, especially when the fractions are extreme.

But something that Hall of Fame driver Dave Palone said after the race really settled it in my mind.

“You never want to go that fast . . . you don’t want to spend your horse too much,” Palone said. He went on to say that they wanted to win the elimination so they could pick their own post position in the final.

To me, Palone sounded almost apologetic. He knew that this trip may have taken something out of Sweet Lou. Palone is not a phony. He gave an honest response and basically tipped the public to the possibility that Sweet Lou could bounce off that hard-used effort.

Racing fans always want to crown the next superhorse. As soon as a horse strings a few wins together, you start hearing people say that this is the next great horse. We heard this with See You At Peelers and many others who ultimately fell short of that rare distinction.

The truth is, superhorses are few and far between. After Nihilator retired in 1985, the next pacer that approached superhorse status was Somebeachsomewhere, in 2008. Yes, there were some great pacers in between, but they were not unbeatable. Even the great Jenna’s Beach Boy, who won 30 of 42 starts before he retired in 1996, was not a superhorse. In fact, Jenna’s Beach Boy is a great example of how tough it is to keep winning every race. He was one of the fastest, most powerful pacers to ever step foot on a racetrack, yet he lost 12 times. The pressure in major stakes races can be intense.

Let’s go back for a second to the trotter Ellen’s Isle. This mare was bet down to 3-10 off a qualifier that she won by 11 lengths. A qualifier is an easy race. There is no purse, no pressure. A regular parimutuel race is an entirely different thing. That’s why Ellen’s Isle was able to stay flat in her qualifier, but broke for the fourth time in five starts this year when she was in a real race.

So keep these things in mind when evaluating odds-on favorites. In stakes races, remember that the pressure in the final is going to be intense, and no matter how good a horse is, it is not easy to win a race like the North American Cup or the Meadowlands Pace. And look for those chinks in the armor.

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories, check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.