08/13/2014 12:06PM

Pandolfo: Jason Bartlett shining at Yonkers

Driver Jason Bartlett ranks ninth in North American earnings for 2014..

Last December at Yonkers Raceway, at only 32 years of age, harness driver Jason Bartlett won his 5,000th race.

"Being from Maine, I never imagined I'd have this kind of success," Bartlett said. "I've been fortunate. As soon as I came to Yonkers I did well. My first full season (2008) here I was the leading driver."

Bartlett won three straight driving titles at Yonkers from 2008-10. As the years have progressed, the driving colony at Yonkers has gotten tougher. It's the best in the business, in my opinion. But despite the added competition, Bartlett has been a consistent winner and he's a better all-around driver now.

"I've definitely improved," Bartlett said. "I used to be too aggressive. Now I make better decisions and I win more races from off the pace. When you're driving against talented guys like George Brennan and Brian Sears, you can't afford to make mistakes, because you can be sure they'll take advantage of it.

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"Knowing the horses I'm racing against is important," Bartlett said. "If a horse ships in that I'm not familiar with, I'll watch replays to see what the horse looks like. I also have more of an open mind now. Years ago I usually had a set game plan before the race started. Now I often audible at the line, make more decisions at the gate. Everything can change quickly at the start. For instance, if a horse breaks, that can change the entire race. During a race, sometimes I'll make decisions based on another horse in the race. For instance, if I know there's one horse I have to beat, I'll think of what I can do to help get him beat."

There are certain driving dynamics that come with a half-mile track like Yonkers. Factors like the passing lane and being stuck first-over around too many turns are more relevant around smaller tracks.

"With the inside bias in the one mile races, it's tough if you have post six, seven, or eight,” said Bartlett. “If you leave, you usually have to use your horse hard. From the inside post, it's always nice if you can get the two-hole. The passing lane definitely changes the way you drive. If I can get into the two-hole, I can win a lot of races just by turning left. I'm used to driving with the passing lane, so I can't knock it. But, if there wasn't a passing lane, the race would be raced differently. For one thing, the horses in the two- or three-hole would have to pull more often.

"Going first-over at Yonkers is tough if you have to pull at the three-eighths or on the paddock turn. You need a lot of horse to win like that. But if you can wait to pull at or past the half, you can rate the horse on the turn and then move up down the backstretch, and it's not that tough of a trip."

Perhaps the best place to be on a half-mile track (or perhaps any size track) is on the front. Bartlett revealed that knowing your surroundings and competition is just as important as the horse he is driving.

"First of all, a lot depends on what's sitting behind me,” said Bartlett about driving on the engine. “If I'm on the lead and the first over horse isn't much, then the horse I have to beat is probably coming up on the outside with weak cover. He's going to have to move his horse three wide on the turn, so I may as well try to get the jump on him. If, on the other hand, the horse I have to beat is already on my back, I may have to save something so I can hold him off in the stretch. It also depends on the horse I'm driving. If you want to try to bottom them out, you need a horse that has sprinter's speed."

Bartlett uses two main bikes (or sulkies), a Ghost and a Tornado. With the constant advancements in equipment, even minor details like wheels could be the difference between winning or losing by a nose. “I just put new, lighter wheels on the Ghost, and it tracks beautifully around the turns," said Bartlett.

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Bartlett seemed interested in how the changes coming to Yonkers in November will affect racing. Starting November 9, Yonkers will add Sunday racing with a post time of 11 a.m. as part of a deal to simulcast races to France. Perhaps of greater concern to Bartlett will be the length of some of the races, as the track has announced they will card races at distances exceeding one mile. Yonkers already contests some races at 1 1/16 miles to allow a longer run into the first turn and perhaps the ideal distance for longer races would be 1 5/16 miles. That would create a long straightaway down the backstretch at the start of the race.

"The trainers are going to have to prepare their horses for the longer distances,” said Bartlett. “I like the 1 1/16 (miles) races we have for the reason you bring up, it gives the outside horses a chance to leave. This really opens up the race. There's more movement and a faster pace when you get the outside posts involved.

"People often wish we could get back to the kind of racing you had years ago, with more off-the-pace winners. But, at the same time, they want the fast times, the 1:47 miles.  But the two don't go together. If you want more action at the three quarters, and more off-the-pace winners, you have to slow the races down. Yonkers is going to race longer distances on the Sunday matinee cards. At the distance you mentioned, such as a 1 5/16 (miles), the pace would have to be slower and that could be more like the racing was years ago. It will be interesting to see what develops."

While change can often be met with resistance, Bartlett said most of the horsemen were willing to have an open mind to the oncoming alterations.

"I think the horsemen realize that we need to do everything we can to put out a good product,” said Bartlett. “We see some of the problems they've had at Monticello, or up in Canada, and it's scary. Sometimes I wonder which tracks are going to close first. We have to be open to change."

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.