04/25/2012 4:39PM

Pandolfo: Knowing when a horse is live

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First off, let me say that I’m not a cynic who believes that a lot of horses aren’t trying to win. Owning racehorses is expensive and trainers are under a lot of pressure to produce. Of course it appears that some drivers are trying harder to win than others. But that’s because they have a sharp horse. A horse that’s  outclassed or out of form is most likely going to save ground and hope to pick up a piece of the purse.

There are things you can look for that tip off a well- meant effort by an improving horse. One of the best signs that a horse is ready for a top effort is a driver change. My favorite is when a trainer drives the horse for the first start or two off a layoff. Then, in the third start off the layoff, the trainer takes himself off and switches to a catch driver. I also like it when a horse comes off a layoff and has a low percentage driver for a few starts, then switches to one of the top drivers. This type of driver change is an indication that the trainer feels his horse is ready. Trainers know that if they enlist a top catch driver, the driver may use their horse hard. That’s why some trainers won’t try to get a top driver unless they feel that their horse is ready to exert himself  fully. Many times you will also see a positive driver change when a horse is dropped in class. The trainer knows that he has a good shot and wants to make the most of it. The top drivers usually have their choice, so if they get on a horse for the first time, they also feel that the horse is in a good spot. So there are several reasons why a driver change can be significant.

I also like to look for a sudden improvement in form. For instance, say a horse has several races where he  just saves ground. Then in his  next start, the horse shows sharp early speed and tires. This is a good sign. Harness racing is more speed favoring that it used to be. Consequently, the first quarters are often hotly contested. Trainers know that a horse has to be fit to leave the gate. Improved early speed is a sign that a horse is coming into top form.

When a horse is driven more aggressively it’s usually a good sign. Once a horse is training well and appears to be back in form, the trainer is going to tell the driver to get more aggressive. So even if the horse gets a tough trip and tires, the fact that the connections decided to push the horse is a sign that the horse is sharpening.

Another more subtle thing to look for is a key equipment change. I always check the equipment changes when I’m at the track. If a horse adds a “hood”, a “blind bridle,” or “blinkers,” these changes are normally a sign of intent to show speed.  An equipment change like this usually means that the horse is going to leave the gate.

Finally, look for early money on a horse that has been going off at long odds. Say a horse has been going off at 15-1 or higher. Then in his next start, the horse races more aggressively but tires. Next time out, the horse opens up as the favorite with a few hundred or thousand bet on him, but drifts higher as post time nears. Owners or people who work in the barn often bet early when they feel they have a good shot.

Stakes Finals

There are a couple of big races at Yonkers Saturday night. Let’s start with the Blue Chip Matchmaker Final, the 7th race on the card.

Here are my picks:

2-SEE YOU AT PEELERS

3 ANNDROVETTE

1-ROCKLAMATION

I thought SEE YOU AT PEELERS was a bit overhyped last year and I predicted that she would not win the Breeders Crown, but she is making a believer of me so far this year. Peelers has looked better than ever and her quick gate speed makes her the perfect horse for a track like Yonkers. She drew the rail here and post 1 has been golden at Yonkers this month. It will be interesting to see if Sears yields and retakes or just forces tucks and rolls down the pike. Either way, it’s hard not to see Peelers on the point with the big money on the line. ANNDROVETTE is a top class racehorse and Tetrick may be able to leave and get the pocket trip behind Peelers. ROCKLAMATION draws post 2 and the key for Gingras is keeping the pocket closed so she can follow Peelers, but Anndrovette may have something to say about that.

George Morton Levy

Oh what a difference a post position draw makes. Those of you who have followed my columns over the years know that I believe that all stakes races must have an open position draw. In recent years, the Hambletonian has allowed the horses that win their eliminations to pick their own post position, which greatly diminishes the drama of the sport.

But fortunately they do it right for the Levy (race 9) and this year the two best horses drew outside posts. Yippee, we’ve got a horse race.

3 ART Z

7 REAL NICE

2 BLATANTLY GOOD

1A FOILED AGAIN

With $455,000 on the line the pace should be fast, especially with the two top horses on the extreme outside. I’m going to take a shot with ART Z. The last time he tracked a fast pace from an inside post he got up for the win. The way most of these top ranked stakes races are raced nowadays, horses rarely rally from far back. Because of that, I want a horse from an inside post or a horse that I feel is definitely going to leave fast. Art Z may be perfectly placed, but he will need a big effort against this field.

The best horse is FOILED AGAIN, who has won a remarkable 61 races for more than $3.5 million in earnings in his career. But Foiled Again drew post 8 and will probably have to try to take this from off the pace, and he could get parked the mile. REAL NICE beat Foiled Again a month ago and has a big shot here, especially since he drew inside of his main rival. Real Nice should be able to work his way to the lead but I think that either Atochia or Blatantly Good, or both, will force a hot early pace here and it could take just enough out of Real Nice to set up an upset win. But even if the pace is hot, Real Nice has a good chance hang on; he is a really good horse.