12/19/2012 4:55PM

Pandolfo: Meadowlands returns with A, B, C classification system

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Racing returns to the Meadowlands on Dec. 28.

The Meadowlands 2013 winter meet starts Dec. 28. This season the Meadowlands will offer an early pick four beginning in race 3 each night. The pool will be guaranteed at $25,000. The late pick four will start in race 7 and will feature a $50,000 guarantee on Thursdays and Fridays and $75,000 on Saturday nights. Also, starting in the first race, there will be a 50-cent pick five with a $15,000 guarantee.

Post time for the first race has been changed to 7:15 p.m. Eastern.

Another change this year is the move from race conditions to the old A, B, C method of classification. This gives the racing secretary the power to classify horses based on current form and earnings. When I first started following harness racing in New York in the early 1970's, this was the way races were classified. Back then some players complained that trainers would instruct drivers not to win so they could "milk" the class and keep picking up checks without having to move up in company. This argument may resurface at the winter meet.

I didn't think it was an issue in the 70's. Harness racing at that time was the best I've ever seen and the A, B, C method was not a negative. And let's look at this realistically. In 2013, the cost of owning racehorses far exceeds 1970 levels. Trainer fees; stakes fees; vet fees. They add up quickly. Owning horses is an expensive hobby. Owners can't afford to have their horses pick up checks. They need to win. The idea that you can survive in this sport by finishing third is a misnomer.

And just imagine if you were a harness driver. Drivers get paid to win. If a driver doesn't have a respectable win percentage, who's going to use him? The same for trainers. And I don't know a single owner who leaps for joy when their horse plunks up for the show. Whether you train, drive, or own horses, you want to win and you need to win. That's where the money is. Any talk of drivers holding horses back so they can keep a horse in its class is silly, in my opinion.

If you want to give yourself a fighting chance of showing a profit at the Meadowlands, here are a few things to look for. First of all, the wind can be a big factor at the Big M. Last winter was unusually mild but normally there are a lot of windy nights. Most of the time the wind is a "tailwind." This means that down the backstretch the first over horse is racing directly into the wind. Horses that have to rough it uncovered into the wind and hold well are often prime bets in upcoming starts.

At drf.com/harness and in Harness Eye we'll keep you informed with our superior charts, plus our horses to watch lists and track bias lists each week. But I still recommend that you watch as many races as possible. Look for horses that race well after showing early speed on nights where closers did well. Look for those tough trips into the wind. Look for horses that finished strongly and flashed improvement in their last start. Horses that win at the Meadowlands are horses that have stamina and class. This is not a track that rewards cheap speed. Look for horses that can pass horses in the stretch.

A good Meadowlands race is a competitive10-horse field on a winter night. That's all you need, a competitive 10-horse race. As for winter racing, harness racing is better in the winter. The sport has evolved into speed-favoring racing. A cold night, or a cold windy night, usually makes it tougher for horses to go wire to wire, which is one of the reasons why the Meadowlands product remains attractive to bettors. In my opinion, most harness bettors don't want to bet on races where their horse is out of contention if it doesn't leave the gate.

Harness racing needs to attract Thoroughbred fans

There are different types of bettors who wager on harness races: A) Harness bettors who only bet on harness racing. B) Horseplayers who bet on both harness and Thoroughbred racing. C) Thoroughbred bettors who occasionally wager on harness racing.

Let's analyze these categories. If you operate a harness track that mainly attracts the Type A (harness only) bettor, you're not in an ideal situation. That's why the handle at most half-mile and five-eighth tracks is so low. The people who still bet the races in these speed-favoring three- and four-turn races are mainly diehard harness fans, and this is a dwindling category. For a harness track to thrive in today's environment, it has to attract the B and C types. Let's break this down further. The B bettor is like a lot of horseplayers, he likes horseracing and he knows how to handicap both Thoroughbreds and harness racing. I'm in this category. I enjoy both sports from two perspectives, as a racing fan and a bettor.

But type C is interesting. Why would a Thoroughbred bettor wager occasionally on harness racing? What entices this type of player to change course?

This isn't going to make me popular with Thoroughbred racing's hierarchy, but the truth is, Thoroughbred racing is in trouble. For whatever reasons, Thoroughbreds have become increasingly fragile. Consequently, the average Thoroughbred only runs about six times a year. Back in the 1960's horses ran twice as many races in a year. And the sport has struggled to keep its stars on the track. Because of injuries or early retirement for breeding purposes, the few great horses that emerge tend to have short careers. The sport of Thoroughbred racing has no answers for these problems. There's no leadership and it's highly unlikely that Thoroughbred racing will make the necessary changes to correct its many problems.

This is an opportunity for harness racing to take away business from Thoroughbred racing. I know that some smug Thoroughbred fans will disagree with me. But the truth is, type B and C bettors, as I've indentified them, are there for the taking.

If you look at a harness track like Balmoral, you can see it happening. Balmoral's handle was up significantly in 2012. Why? Because type B and C bettors are looking for the best races to bet on. They want full fields, good payoffs, and low takeout rates. And, they want good racing that isn't speed or post-position biased. Balmoral and the Meadowlands are really the only harness tracks in this country that race long meets and can be handicapped based on form and class. At most other harness tracks, a handicapper has to concentrate on early speed types and inside posts. This type of speed-biased racing doesn't appeal to Thoroughbred bettors.

So Balmoral and the Meadowlands have the best chance of stealing business away from Thoroughbred tracks. There's no question in my mind that this greatly contributed to Balmoral's increase in handle. Balmoral's racing appeals to almost all types of horse players. This goes to show that if you put on a good product, with exciting come-from-behind winners, full fields, and good payoffs, people will bet on your races. If the state of Illinois votes in slot machines at racetracks in 2013, Balmoral could easily become the top harness track in North America.

The Meadowlands also attracts a lot of Thoroughbred crossover fans. It always has, and for the same reasons why bettors flock to Balmoral racing. At its best, the Big M has the full fields, good payoffs, and rarely has a speed bias, especially during the winter when its product is the most attractive.

Horse racing as a business enterprise is in a tenuous position. But I doubt that racing will cease to exist. Some tracks will survive and perhaps even thrive. Despite problems of its own, harness racing has one huge advantage on Thoroughbred racing: the durability of its breed. Harness horses are much more durable than Thoroughbreds and they race far more often. The horses would be even more durable if the sport did the smart thing and slowed the races down. The bottom line is, any harness track that has exciting racing, with good payoffs, and smart marketing, could be well positioned for the long haul.

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.