04/12/2012 7:59AM

Pandolfo: Post position, speed are the starting points

World Wide Racing Photos
Horses are able to win more often from outside posts at five-eighths-mile tracks that use slanted gates, like Chester.

In my last column I talked about the importance of early speed, especially during the warmer weather. I thought this subject was worth another column.

On most half-mile and five-eighth tracks, many races are won by horses that either leave the gate, or go first over. Last week at Yonkers (April 2-7), for instance, 43 of the 59 (73%) races were won by either the pacesetter or the pocket horse. Of the 43 leavers, 31 were wire-to-wire winners. A total of 7 horses won first over. So far after two nights (April 9/10) this week, 18 of the 22 races were won by leavers, so for the last seven nights of racing at Yonkers 3 out of every 4 races were won by either the pocket horse or the front runner.

Obviously, if you want to bet on horses at Yonkers, you want to look for horses that can get the early lead. But leavers in general are good bets at most harness tracks, and particularly half-mile and five-eighth ovals.

So here’s a strategy you can use when handicapping. First of all, make sure you know what the post position stats are at any track that you are betting. This is important because at some tracks, like The Meadows and Chester, they use the slanted starting gate. Over the past few years at Chester, the best post positions have been 4 and 5. According to stats that I have for the past few years, post 1 usually wins around 13% at both The Meadows and Chester.

Generally, post position parity is better at a five-eighths track than a half-mile track. At most half-mile tracks, post 6, 7, and 8 win only 15% to 16% of the races, combined. At the Meadows and Chester, the outside posts, which would be 7, 8, and 9, win between 22% and 23% of the races. So you can see that on five-eighth tracks, you can bet speed from any post.  And the main reason for that is because it’s easier to leave the gate and get the lead. On a five-eighth track, the horses go around 3 turns. So if a horse leaves and gets parked to the three-eighths on a half-mile track before clearing to the lead, that horse is parked two turns. On a five-eighths track, the horse is parked one turn. This is a huge difference and is one of the reasons why it is easier to win from an outside post on a five-eighth track.

You can use position handicapping to help find contenders in the Pick 3, Pick 4 type of bets, or just something to think about when you do your regular handicapping.  If you can’t figure out which horses are going to leave the gate, it’s not much help, but there are plenty of races where you can isolate the probable leavers.

This works better on half-mile tracks, but you can find some races where you can use it to help handicap races on five-eighth tracks as well. Isolate races where you think you know which horses will leave. These will usually be races where there are obvious speed horses that always leave, or when there is a sharp favorite that has good gate speed and an aggressive driver. Try to concentrate on races where you expect one or two horses to leave. You’ll find that in some races, the horse most likely to cut the mile is obvious.

Next, try to figure out which horse will go first over; most of the time this will be a sharp, in-form horse that has an inside post. But sometimes a horse will leave from the outside, tuck, and go first over, so it’s not always easy to figure out. But generally speaking, any horse that is a solid contender in the race, has post 1 through 4, and is unlikely to leave, is going to go first over.

The key to many races that are raced on half-mile tracks is the strength of the pacesetter. Sometimes there will be a one dimensional speed horse in a race, but the horse rarely wins, or is not in top form. If that type of horse is setting the pace, the chances of the first over horse go way up. What happens a lot, the first over horse takes the lead away from the lackluster front runner and when this happens, the pocket horse gets shuffled back. So any time you see a race where the likely pacesetter is suspect, this vastly improves the chances of the first over horse.

But what if the likely pacesetter is a tough even-money shot that is taking a key drop, or comes off a strong win at this same level? Well, in this type of situation, the chances of the first over horse winning are diminished. Unless you think that the likely first over horse is a monster, you should discount its chances. In a race over a half-mile track, the most likely winner of this race is the pacesetter, and the second most likely winner is the pocket sitter.

So you see, the strength of the pacesetter is the key to most races, especially on half-mile tracks, but it is also a big key in most races on five-eighth tracks. If the pacesetter is strong, the race will often be won by either the pacesetter or pocket horse. If the pacesetter is suspect, the pocket horse has a shot if it can avoid a shuffle, but the horse that goes first over also has a very good chance.

Naturally in any race where the pacesetter isn’t strong, the second over horse has a good chance too, if the horse is a solid contender. But on most half mile tracks, you can probably design a profitable spot play method just by betting on horses that you think will either be cutting the mile, sitting the pocket, or going first over. Once you start betting on horses that are “covered” up on the outside, your chances of cashing a win bet go down. On some five-eighth tracks, such as The Meadows, you can do okay with covered up closers. The Meadows is not a speed favoring track. It’s very important to know how each track is playing.

But this type of positional handicapping really lends itself to half-mile track handicapping. Some five-eighth tracks tend to favor speed during the warmer weather, too, including Chester, Dover, and Pocono Downs, and many races can be handicapped using this type of strategy.

If you use the strategy I’ve outlined here in races where you think you’ve isolated the speed, and you only bet either the pocket horse, the pacesetter, or the first over horse, depending on the relative merits of each horse (and the odds), you’ll win a high percentage of you bets. If you use these horses in Pick 3 and 4 wagers, you’ll also do well because you’ll have the percentages on your side.

TRAINER TALK: I spoke to trainer Scott Blackler recently. From my perspective, Blackler is one of the best trainers in the sport. He is only 27 years old and currently has 35 horses in his barn.  His girlfriend Lindsey Greene works for him and is a big help.

Winbak Fox provides a good example for Blacker’s talent. He took this former $15,000 claimer and won the open with him at Yonkers. Winbak Fox also paced some good miles in the Levy series in 2010. Despite some personality issues, Blackler was patient with Winbak Fox and eventually figured out how to calm him down. Blackler told me that he has purchased Winbak Fox’s full brother (the dam is Foxie Gram). It should be interesting to see how he does.

Blackler also has a three-yearold colt, Piece Of Artwork, that he’s high on. Piece Of Artwork has qualified sharply at Pocono Downs. Blackler trains his horses at Mark Ford’s training center in Middletown, New York and feels the proper environment is very important with horses.

“You have to keep the horses happy,” Blackler said. “With the young horses and the fillies in particular, I like to turn them out for a few days. Some time off can make a big difference and there are fields at the training center where we can do that.”

To learn more about Bob Pandolfo’s handicapping theories, check out the handicapping page at www.ustrotting.com, his www.trotpicks.com website, or his new Facebook page, www.facebook.com/harnessracingcomeback.  Or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Rd, Northampton, PA., 18067