09/12/2012 4:31PM

Pandolfo: Playing the half-mile tracks, part 2


Playing the half-mile tracks, part 2

In this column I’m going offer some opinions on what to look for when handicapping and betting half-mile track harness racing. I’ll go over some generalities as well as cover some specific tracks. Even though the racing on half-mile tracks has been hurt by a speed bias and a high percentage of winning favorites, a good handicapper can still show a profit betting on half-mile track racing. It’s not as exciting as it used to be, but losing isn’t any fun either; that’s why I still bet the half-milers.

Over the years, harness racing has become increasingly speed-favoring, particularly on half-mile tracks. In my opinion, all half-mile tracks are more speed-favoring in 2012 than they were in 2011. This is based on the Sharp Horses & Track Trends report that I prepare for Harness Eye each week. The trend in 2012 has been strong for horses that leave the gate. On most half-mile tracks, the best trips are:

1. On the lead

2. In the pocket or two hole

3. First over

Keep in mind that most tracks are more speed favoring during warmer weather. During the winter, speed doesn’t hold up as well.

Yonkers: This is an unusual track and different from any other half-mile track. Years ago Yonkers Raceway lengthened the stretch from 440 feet to 660 feet. To make that change, they moved the finish line up closer to the first turn. The idea was to help closers. But because the race starts so close to the first turn, Yonkers favors inside posts 1 through 5; posts 1 and 2 are winning over 38 percent of the races. During the spring and summer, Yonkers strongly favored horses that could leave the gate from posts 1 through 5. Many front-runners and pocket winners won. During the winter, there should be more off-the-pace winners. I actually think the racing at Yonkers is better during the colder weather because the speed bias is less pronounced. That being said, if you’re the type of bettor that looks to bet a horse to win, or key a horse on top in exactas or trifectas, I’d still recommend that you try to key in on horses that you feel can leave the gate from posts 1 through 5. If, however, you are a pick-three or pick-four bettor who wants to try to hit a big payoff, sometimes you’ll have to throw in some closers or horses from outside posts, especially during the winter or on nights where there does not appear to be a speed bias.

Freehold: This year at Freehold, posts 1 and 2 are winning over 43 percent of the races. Like most half-mile tracks, inside speed and leavers do extremely well. Post 8 is winning at 3.7 percent. At Freehold you’re going to find many weak fields. If the potential front-runner looks vulnerable, the most likely winner is often the horse that goes first over from posts 1 or 2. Years ago in races with weak front-runners, or races with fast paces, you wanted horses that were second or third over following cover. But in today’s sport, the closer a horse is to the pace the better. Consequently, first over is often the winning trip because if the pacesetter falters the first over horse takes over the lead and has a tactical advantage over the closers.

Maywood: A few years ago, Maywood moved the starting gate back 200 feet, but it is not timed. All races here are one mile and 200 feet. This was done to help the outside posts and create parity. It helped. At Maywood, posts 6, 7, and 8 are winning a combined 27 percent of the races. Compare that with Freehold (15%), Northfield (16%), Yonkers (19%), and you can see that Maywood has a more balanced race. Posts 1 and 2 at Maywood win 29 percent of the races, much lower than Yonkers, Freehold, and other half-mile tracks. Maywood is still kind to leavers, but horses can leave and win from the outside posts. During the winter, closers will win more races but not often from posts 6, 7, or 8. If you’re going to bet the outside posts here, look for a horse that can leave.

Northfield: The home of the “flying turns” has really changed. This track used to have exciting racing with a lot of moves and drivers barreling wide down the backstretch. Unfortunately the purses in Ohio are now dwarfed by the slot tracks. Combine this with the new super sulkies and you get more front-running winners at Northfield. Post 8 is only winning at 2.6 percent and unless they let Walter Case Jr. back in that’s not going to change. In my opinion, unless you have a monster, or a big overlay, it’s very tough to bet any horse that does not have posts 1 through 5 here. During the winter, closers will do better, but on warmer nights, stick with front -unners from posts 1 through 5, or horses that you think will be first over from posts 1 through 3.

Monticello: This half-mile track used to be one of the more closer-friendly ovals, but this year speed has done extremely well. Posts 6, 7 and 8 are winning less than 14 percent, very low. During the spring and summer this year, leavers were dominant over this track. It is a year-round track and in the winter you’ll see more horses winning from second over and a better outside flow because the races go much slower on cold days. In my opinion, veteran driver Billy Parker Jr., who has over 10,000 career wins, is the most skilled driver at Monticello and if you watch how he drives this track, you’ll see how to drive this track. When he has a horse in post 1 or 2, he is very tough to leave out of the exacta. At these tracks that have lower purses, drivers have to be careful not to use their horses too hard early in the race; the horses just can’t handle it. So you want drivers that can save something for the end, especially in the cooler weather when the track is more tiring. Parker seems to have an innate ability to know just how hard he can push each horse to establish position without zapping all the energy out of the horse.

Most half mile tracks have one or two drivers that win a high percentage of the races. These drivers get their pick of the best horses. But some of the favorites driven by the top drivers will be false favorites. If you can find these weak favorites, you can get some nice overlays in the 5-2 to 6-1 range on the other drivers who are winning at 10 percent or higher. The bettors know that most of the races will be won by posts 1 through 5, and the money also comes in on the horses with early speed. But you still find weak-kneed speed types that come home slow and will get caught at short prices. Also look for grinders, or one-paced horses that don’t have good early speed and are not in a good spot to go first over. For instance, say a favorite is a good fit on class and form but the horse has no early speed and has post 5 or 6. This horse will either need to be a monster, or will need to get lucky and get both a good cover trip and a fast pace up front. Most of the time these two factors don’t materialize at the same time and the horse will rally too late, a good horse to bet against.

With favorites winning at an average of 44 percent on half-mile tracks, if you want to find value you have to be patient, but there are overlays. And, there are also favorites that are overlays. Sometimes I’ll take 7-5 on a horse that I feel should be 3-5. From a percentage standpoint, that is still good value.

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.