03/21/2016 10:37AM

Pandolfo: Harness tracks need a Domino’s reversal

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If you own or manage a racetrack, you want to have competitive racing. The ideal race is a full field of competitive horses. But what is good racing? The words "fair and balanced" come to mind. Good payoffs with favorites winning less than 40% is ideal.

The post position bias in harness racing is getting worse, and this year, it's more pronounced than ever. In 2016 at Monticello Raceway, a half mile track, a horse starting from post 8 did not win until March 1. That has to be a record.

At Freehold Raceway last Saturday, March 12, horses starting from post one won 9 of the 12 races. At Freehold so far this year, post 1 has won 26.2% of the races and post 8 has won 2.8%. Post 7 is pretty bad, too, with only 4.6% of the wins.

At Buffalo Raceway, post 1 is winning at a whopping 28% clip. Posts 7 and 8 are at 4.5%.

At Yonkers Raceway, post 8 is only winning at 3.7%. Post 1 is winning at 21.1%.  

There's also a post position bias on most five-eighth tracks. At Miami Valley, post 9 is winning at 2.7%.

Based on my Sharp Horses and Track Trends report that I compile daily, it shows that most half and five-eighth harness tracks are speed favoring. The U.S. tracks that I wouldn't call speed favoring are Cal Expo, Hoosier, Lexington (Red Mile), The Meadowlands, and The Meadows. The Meadows is a five-eighths oval, so it is strange that it falls on a list with the other two-turn tracks, which tend to be much kinder to closers.

Half mile track racing is dominated by leavers from posts 1 to 5. On most five-eighth tracks, leavers also have a big advantage. This type of speed and post position bias is a major problem for harness racing and not just because the outside posts rarely win.

No racetrack should have any post winning at 26% (Freehold) or 28% (Buffalo), which are the win percentages for post 1 at these tracks. It just isn't good racing. It creates an environment of low payoffs and races that are dominated by leavers.

Maybe now that I'm in my sixties, I'm getting dumber; although my wife will tell you that is impossible. But if you run a racetrack and you have a severe speed and post bias, shouldn't that be cause for alarm? Shouldn't you make changes? I find the inaction by the industry baffling. 

Being a small businessman, I read a lot about marketing. This is a big issue in harness racing. People always tell me, "Pandy, if they spent more money on marketing, they'd get new fans because people would see how great harness racing is." Most of the people who say this fell in love with the sport years ago when there wasn't a severe speed and post position bias and the payoffs were juicier. Increasing advertising costs without improving the product would be a waste of money.

Let's compare this sport we love to another business.  Domino’s Pizza has been in business for over 50 years. In 2009, Domino's Pizza, which started trading on the stock market in 2004, was failing. Sales had fallen far behind rivals Pizza Hut and Papa John’s. Domino's was on a slide and some market researchers predicted the company's demise.

Domino’s asked their customers what the problem was. The response was simple, "Your pizza tastes like cardboard."

Domino’s made changes. They hired marketing guru Russell Weiner, formerly from Pepsi, as their chief marketing officer. And, they improved their product.

Weiner devised a brilliant self-deprecating marketing campaign, which basically said, "You told us our Pizza sucked, so we improved it. Why don't you come in and try our new recipe?" The company also came out with some new food products, simplified its menu, and streamlined its mobile and internet access. It reinvented itself, not by trying something profoundly new, but by going back to basics.

Consumers loved the honesty and transparency. Perhaps Politicians should take note!   Since 2009, sales and growth exploded for Domino’s. The stock, which traded as low as $2.83 a share in 2008, soared to an all-time high and is now trading at over $130.00 a share.

There are many ways that racetracks can address the speed and post position bias. First they have to identify the problem. The speed-favoring sulkies created the bias. Below are some ideas:  

  • The Meadows uses a slanted starting gate. The slanted starting gate doesn't totally correct the problem, but it helps. All half and five-eighth tracks should probably have slanted gates.
  • Tracks that use the passing lane should probably stop. If you watch the races at Yonkers, for instance, you can see that the drivers are less aggressive because of the passing lane.
  • Longer races. Yonkers has the mile and a quarter trotting races, which are less-biased than the one mile races. You can also start the races sooner and have an untimed run up, which makes it much easier for horses to leave from the outside posts.
  • You can have starters in the second tier. Northfield Park is the only half mile track that reaches a million in handle and they card a lot of 9-horse fields. By having a horse in the second tier, the outside flow is there right from the start, so you don't have horses sitting single file for five-eighths of a mile. Yonkers has 10-horse fields in their 10-furlong trot races, and with the two horses in the second tier, the outside flow is better.
  • A racetrack has the right to stop using the off-centered sulkies, which are speed favoring and created the problem in the first place. The best sulky for competitive racing was the old wooden bike, but even the steel sulkies used in the '90's, which were not off centered, were less biased.
     
  • Tracks could change over to a synthetic surface. Track maintenance expert Dan Coon once told me that synthetic tracks would not be speed favoring.

Let me end on a positive note. Yes, in my opinion, the speed and post position bias are detrimental to the sport. Something should be done about it.  But, if you like harness racing, you can still win at betting harness races. There's a lot of dead money in the pools. What I mean by that, there are still horses being overbet from outside posts. I see horses starting from outside posts going off at odds between 8-1 and 20-1 that should be 25-1 to 100-1.

There are also more low odds overlays than there used to be. Years ago, most of the overlays were horses in the 4-1 to 15-1 odds range. But now if you have a horse going off at 6-1 from post 8, a 2-1 shot that has post 3 may actually be an overlay because of the simple fact that the 6-1 shot is probably not going to win. I eliminate these horses all the time, and they rarely beat me.

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, 112 Michael Ct., Northampton, PA 18067.