08/29/2012 4:35PM

Pandolfo: Playing the half-mile tracks, part 1


Playing the half-mile tracks, part 1

Half-mile track harness racing has a great history in this country. Besides the most well-known half-mile tracks, there have been many half-mile ovals at county fairs throughout the Northeast.

Today, most half-mile tracks are speed-favoring, which helps favorites win over 40 percent of the races. Generally speaking, betting handle is going to suffer when a lot of favorites win. This has lead to criticism of half-mile track harness racing.

But many harness racing fans have fond memories of great half-mile track harness racing. In fact, despite the criticism, when you talk to racing fans, you still hear a lot of people who grudgingly admit that they prefer half-mile track racing.

One of the main reasons why people like half-mile tracks is that it puts you closer to the action. Since the track is smaller in circumference, the spectator is close to the action and can see the race well without using binoculars or television monitors.

During the half-mile track glory days in the 1960’s, most of the races were considerably slower than two minutes. I started following the sport in 1970, and it was not uncommon to see miles in the 2:02 to 2:05 range.

The driver who had the lead almost always tried to slow the pace down. In order to win, a horse needed stamina (class), fitness, and speed, or some combination of these three assets. The most important asset was class, or stamina - the ability to finish strongly.

Since the lead horse was attempting to rate during the middle-half of the race, the outer tier almost always lined up directly next to the inner tier; the old four in, four out. This meant that at the half mile pole, which was right in front of the grandstand, the field was usually tightly bunched. This was good for the sport because the bettors were engaged; the stands were crowded and noisy as fans shouted and rooted for their horses.

In today’s half-mile sport, there aren’t that many races that are tightly bunched and the outer flow is often late developing. To make matters worse, the outer flow doesn’t even always reach the front-runners. From a business standpoint, this is a bad thing because there are many races where the horse you bet on is in such a bad position at the half that there’s no reason to watch the rest of the race. Sort of like a football game where the score at the half is 60-0 and the losing team has the weakest offense in the league. Who would watch the second half? Imagine if the NFL had games like that, the ratings would plummet.

When half-mile harness racing was popular, favorites won about 33 percent of the time. There are eight half-mile tracks racing that you’re all familiar with, Batavia, Freehold, Harrington, Maywood, Monticello, Northfield, Saratoga, and Yonkers. The favorite at these tracks is winning at an average of 44 percent.

Some people think that the favorites have become dominant in harness racing because the racing isn’t that good. I don’t. The reason why the favorites win so often on half-mile tracks is the speed and post position bias. We have to remember that when the favorites won 33 percent of the time, the horses were pulling wooden sulkies and the races were as much as eight seconds slower than they are now. The slower times gave closers a chance to catch up and helped create parity in both post positions and racing styles. Posts 6, 7 and 8 won almost twice as often as they do now, and the inside posts won far less often. Now the horses pull off-centered steel sulkies that help the leavers. At some tracks, over 70 percent of the races are won by either the front-runner or the pocket horse.  Consequently, most of the bettors only wager on horses from inside posts, and horses that figure to be on the inside near the pylons. This creates an odd imbalance in the wagering.

For example, let’s say that two horses are clearly the best horses in the race and they have posts 6 and 8; they are horses that usually race from off the pace. And, let’s say that the 1 horse is the third best horse in the race and the 5 horse is the fourth best horse in the race and they have some early speed. If you ran this race with the exact same horses over a half mile track in 1970, the odds would look like this: One, 3-1; Five, 9-2; Six, 5-2’ Eight, 4-1. If you ran this exact same race today, with the same horses, the odds would look like this: One, 1-1; Five, 3-1; Six, 6-1; Eight, 12-1.

How could this be? Well, years ago the best horses could overcome the outside posts because the races were not heavily speed or post-position biased. So naturally the betting reflected that. Today it’s much different.

Look at a track like Northfield Park in Ohio. Post 8 only wins 2.6 percent of the races. The favorites are winning at 48 percent. At Batavia in upstate New York, post 1 wins 29 percent of the races. Post 8 is winning at a measly rate of 1.8 percent. At Batavia, posts 1 and 2 are winning almost half of the races!

So you see, the favorites win at a higher percentage because they have speed and an inside post. And, the favorites pay lower odds because naturally the bettors are not going to bet closers or outside posts, so all of the money goes on one or two horses.

What surprises me the most is that the people who run the sport, the track owners and management, have allowed this to happen. In my opinion, if you operate a track where the favorites win over 40 percent and there is a speed and post-position bias, you cannot possibly be successful. That’s right; I’m saying that you cannot stay in business with this type of uninspired racing featuring low payoffs and races that are dominated by front-runners or pocket winners.

In the NFL they have done everything possible to create parity so they have exciting, close games. In harness racing, we have done the exact opposite. What’s sad is that we once had a winning formula. The slower, more even-paced harness racing from years ago was much more competitive, more exciting, and offered better payoffs.

As many of you know, I suggested going back to the conventional wood sulkies. Only one track operator, Jeff Gural, contacted me about this issue. Right now Jeff Gural seems to be the only track operator in the sport who seems genuinely interested in staying in business.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a company that is willing to manufacture the conventional wood sulky, although I’m sure it could be arranged. But, Mr. Gural may try to run some races in some of the older bikes that are not off-centered, such as the Tel-Star and the Jerald bikes. These sulkies are often seen in trotting races and qualifiers. Many horsemen still have these bikes. If you go back and watch race replays from the 1990’s, you’ll see that even then the racing was much better than it is now. There’s no doubt that the racing was the most competitive in the wood bikes. But what really hurt the most was the first off-centered bike, the Advantage or Harmer that came into prominence around 2002. Ever since then the racing has just gotten worse and worse, even on the one-mile ovals.

The Tel-Star and Jerald sulkies are not off centered and were used in the 1990’s. The racing was much more competitive. Jeff Gural may try to run some races in these bikes at Tioga Downs so we can see how much of a difference it makes.

Of course there are other things that can be done. I was just watching some replays of harness racing from Australia. In some of the races, there were 11 or 12 horses in the race, lined up in two tiers at the start, front and back, and the races were a mile and one-quarter or longer. Naturally, the fractions were much slower, there was a lot more action, and the racing was more exciting.

Speed-favoring racing does not sell. If you look at Thoroughbred racing in this country and abroad, the races that have the highest handle and largest audience are the longer races. The Kentucky Derby, Breeders Cup Classic, and Dubai World Cup are run at a mile and a quarter. All of the Triple Crown races are stamina events, with the Belmont stakes run at a mile and a half. These races are generally more exciting than sprints because they are less speed-favoring, and the betting handle proves it. Turf racing is very popular because it favors closers and has exciting finishes.

In conclusion, I want to say that two things. One, I’m certain that if we continue on this path of 44 percent winning favorites and inside speed dominance, all or most of these harness tracks will go out of business, probably in the next 5 to 10 years. So, the smart thing to do would be to make changes to fix the problems. This is actually easy and inexpensive to do. Why nothing is being done to correct this problem is puzzling.

Two, you can still make a profit betting half-mile track harness racing. In fact, in my next column, I’ll break down each half-mile track and show you how to win consistently at each one. Don’t expect to hit a $100,000 Pick 4, but you can win if you have the right strategy for each track.

I still bet half-mile racing, even in its present sad shape, because I know I can grind out a profit, and I’m a half-mile track diehard. But there aren’t enough diehards and dinosaurs around to keep these tracks going. We need more action, more balanced racing, and better payoffs.

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.