01/06/2016 5:12PM

Pandolfo: The professional approach to Harness handicapping


I've corresponded with many harness fans/bettors and professional harness handicappers over the years. Not surprisingly, there are some interesting differences between the two groups.

Obviously, professional bettors make bigger wagers. But there are other key distinctions. Every professional harness bettor I've known watches a lot of races. There are thousands of horse racing fans who do all of their handicapping off of the past performances. Many don't even watch the races they bet on. Below are some other key areas where the professional approach may differ from that of the “Average Joe”.

Trip Handicapping

Professional bettors I've known put a lot of emphasis on trip handicapping. They watch a lot of replays, either online or recorded with a Digital Video Recorder.

Several years ago the USTA asked me to do spot plays for their website, www.ustrotting.com. The picks appeared on Friday and Saturdays. The experiment lasted over a year and I showed a flat bet profit on the plays.  During that time, almost every key horse I used was a horse that I took off of my "horses to watch" list.

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So this is how the progression went: I watched races, analyzed charts and made up a list of horses to watch, just as I do for the Sharp Horses and Track Trends that we publish. The following week, I looked to see which horses from the list were racing that night. Then I looked over each horse to see how I felt it fit into the race it had drawn into. I also tried to pick horses that I didn't think would go off as the favorite. This is a similar approach that professional bettors use.


Taking trip handicapping one step further, I've found that most professional harness bettors actually attend the qualifiers at the main track they follow.

I've heard many casual players tell me that they never bet a horse that's coming off a layoff. Statistically, I can tell you that many trainers do have terribly low win percentages with layoff horses. However, the professional bettors aren't concerned about the overall statistics. They're looking for that occasional big overlay winner that may have shown some brilliance in its qualifier (more on this later).


Perhaps the biggest difference between the casual bettor and the Pro is the way they approach each race. The casual bettor typically handicaps the race and bets the horse that he thinks will win the race. Professional bettors I've known have the race narrowed down to a few win contenders. Once the betting starts, the Pro keeps a careful eye on the toteboard. The Pro will bet any of his contenders if the price is right. He's not focused on one horse that he thinks will win.


Now, of course, these professionals I'm referring to can afford to lose bets. And that's another big difference. They have serious bankrolls. The old axiom is, "don't bet with scared money." They aren't. They're not afraid to bet an overlaid longshot even though they know that their chances of hitting the bet is not as good as betting the 2-1 fair value favorite.

I've always been amazed of how fearless professional bettors can be. I've seen some of these guys drop thousands of dollars over the course of a few nights without breaking a sweat. They're focused on making good bets and they understand that they're going to have bad days. They know that they'll come out ahead in the long run because they're only betting on legitimate contenders that are attractive odds.


I often hear casual bettors say that they only bet to win and I've heard many people say that exotic wagers are sucker bets. But I've never actually met a professional bettor who is a win bettor. They may bet to win sometimes, but they analyze each exotic pool carefully. And, the truth is, these pros are not grinders. I know that some people think that there are these sharks at the track who are trying to win $500 a night and look for one or two solid win bets. I've never met anyone like that. The professional bettors I've known are looking for scores and the bigger, the better. They want to have $50 on an exacta that pays 75-1, $6 on a trifecta that pays 350-1, or an $8,000 Superfecta or Pick 5 payoff. The benefit of the big score is that a few big hits a year can be enough to show a nice profit. Professional bettors understand the leverage that super exotics offer.

The Little Things

There are other subtleties that some professionals may have in their repertoire.  For instance, some will get to the races early and watch the horses warm up. Also, most professional bettors check the equipment changes in every race. They're looking for any edge they can get. For instance, say there's a speed bias. They spot a horse that's adding a hood or blinkers and picking up a more aggressive driver. That's an indication that the trainer may want the horse to leave the gate. On a speed favoring track, it can be an advantage.

The past year or two, I don't think the sulky changes have been a big part of handicapping. We may have finally reached a time where the sulkies are as fast as they're ever going to be. But in the past, when a new and faster sulky came out, the professional bettors would keep track of each driver who bought one and bet horses that were getting the new sulky for the first time. Some of these pros cleaned up every time a new and faster bike came out.

Back to the qualifiers . . . I mentioned that pros actually watch qualifiers and aren't afraid to bet a horse off a layoff. This goes against the grain because generally speaking, layoff horses are not good bets. But, since these guys are looking for scores, they try to get every edge they can. They may not bet a lot of layoff horses; they're selective. I probably only bet about three to five horses a year that are coming off layoffs, usually at the Meadowlands. But I've hit some nice longshots and I feel that I can get an edge there at times.

One last thing about trip handicapping. Again, this falls under the subtlety category. The professional bettors tend to be expert trip handicappers. They're not just keying in on the obvious horse that held well without cover, or was boxed in with pace. They know the horses at the circuit they follow. A typical scenario, a pro sees an aggressive driver torch a horse on the front end. But, he knows that this particular horse prefers to "race off a helmet". In the horse's next start, it picks up a more patient driver. The odds are inflated because the horse finished out of the money in its last start. This is the type of trip handicapping play that the average bettor will not be attuned to. The professional harness bettor knows the characteristics of every horse and driver.

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, 112 Michael Ct., Northampton, PA 18067.