09/26/2012 1:15PM

Pandolfo: Playing the five-eighths tracks

Derick Giwner
At Harrah's Philadelphia, the second turn navigates a bridge over the Delaware River. The turn cost a reported $12 million to build.

In my last column I covered some of the nuances of handicapping and betting half-mile tracks. Five-eighths tracks are also prominent in the sport.

At five-eighths size tracks, the race starts on the backstretch and heads into the turn. This means that the horses race around three turns, one less turn than on half-mile tracks. That’s why the final times are faster.

At most five-eighth tracks I cover, the favorites win between 39 and 42 percent of the time, so the average is about 3 percent less than the half-mile tracks.

Harrah’s Philadelphia: This track is unique in that the second turn is on a bridge that goes out over the Delaware River. The bridge reportedly cost $12 million to build. The track has become increasingly speed-favoring over the past few years. They use a slanted starting gate, so the outside horses can leave. Because of this, the inside posts are not an advantage as they are on half-mile tracks. Post 1 and post 2 usually win about 13 percent each, while posts 4 and 5 are the best posts and win around 19 percent each.

At Philadelphia, leavers do very well but many races are won by the horse that makes a quarter-move. This move usually starts on the first turn as the driver looks to take the lead approaching the stands the first time. If your horse makes the lead at that point, or is sitting in the pocket as they go into the second turn on the ramp, you are in a great spot. First over horses also do pretty well here.

As for the quality of racing, the slot-fueled purses are attractive and the quality of horses and drivers is first rate. My recommendation is to stick with horses that you expect to leave, quarter move, or go first over.

Dover Downs: This Delaware track races through the fall and winter. Another “racino,” the quality of racing at Dover is very good. The track plays a lot like a half-mile track and strongly favors posts 1 through 5. Post 8 wins at 5 percent, just a little better than most half-mile tracks. Early speed does well at Dover. In the winter, I’ll bet closers if the price is right and I have a good horse, but mostly from the best posts, 1 through 5. In my opinion, you can catch some excellent overlays at Dover, probably because the pools aren’t big enough to attract the professional bettors. There are not that many shippers at Dover. Consequently, trip handicapping is important. Also, if you follow the track closely and get to know which horses have the winning instinct, or class, you can do well. Shippers make the races more interesting and exciting but when a track has few shippers, it’s easier to handicap.

Pocono Downs: This track located in Wilkes Barre, Pa., has become the fastest five-eighths track in the country. The track is one of the few that has a reddish colored surface. The stretch is 490 feet long but closers that aren’t too far back do okay here, especially on the cooler nights. You should watch the first couple of races to see if there’s a speed bias. Posts 1 through 5 are pretty balanced in the 14 percent range. Post 5 is the best post. Post 6 and 7 are winning at 10 percent each this year, then it drops off to 7 percent for post 8 and 5 percent for post 9. If you’re going to bet horses from posts 8 or 9 you need a horse that can really get out of the gate quickly, otherwise stick to posts 1 through 7. This is another casino track and the quality of racing is solid. From an entertainment standpoint, this track has excellent patio style table seating and reasonable prices for food and drink with good views of the track. Favorites are winning at 41 percent  this year.

Pompano Park: This Florida track has pretty good racing during the winter, and you don’t have to worry about the elements because the weather is usually ideal. The best cards are usually in January and February because horsemen come down from the north for the winter.  Leavers do well but closers from posts 1 through 5 do okay unless there’s a speed bias. Overall, I rate this track as a bit less speed-favoring than most three-turn tracks. Favorites win over 40 percent but you can catch some good longshots in the winter when the racing is the most competitive.

The Meadows: This track near Pittsburgh is another “racino” track and the racing is solid. Because of the way the track allows entries, it is set up to favor the local horsemen so there are not that many shippers, similar to Dover Downs. This makes it easier to handicap if you do your homework and follow the racing closely.

The track uses a slanted starting gate and has the best balance or post position parity of any five-eighths track in the country. For example, post 1 wins at 11 percent, post 8 wins at 10 percent. Post 5 is the best post with a 17 percent win average this year. Post 9 is winning at 6.9 percent this year, pretty good for that post. Because of the slanted starting gate, post 1 is not an easy post like it is on half-mile tracks. Favorites are winning at 39 percent. The track has a good selection of trotting events and several veteran trainers who do good work with trotters. I would rate The Meadows as the least speed-favoring five-eighths track in the country. Leavers do well, but the track is a bit more tiring than most harness tracks and horses can rally from first and second over. The only problem with this track, and Harrah’s Philadelphia, is the trifecta takeout, which is absurdly high in the 35 percent range. You get a better deal in the exacta.

Tioga Downs: This upstate New York track reminds me of The Meadows because it is not as speed-favoring as most harness tracks, which is great. Unlike the Meadows, there are plenty of shippers here but that makes the races more interesting to handicap. Leavers and horses making quarter-moves do well, as they do in most of these three-turn races, but closers from posts 1 through 6 perform okay if you have a good horse, but insist on value. Posts 4 and 5 are the best posts, but posts 1 through 6 are well balanced. Post 6 wins at 13 percent, just a bit lower than posts 1 and 3, which usually win 14 to 15 percent. Post 9 is tough, winning at only 4 percent. Tioga has slots so the quality of racing is pretty good. Tioga’s racing season just ended.

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.