03/29/2012 10:22AM

Pandolfo: Speed rules in harness racing


Driver Ron Pierce is known for his aggressive racing style. | Photo by Lisa Photo

This time of the year I make adjustments to my handicapping. Warmer weather usually helps horses that are close to the pace. This winter was mild, so tactical speed has done well all year at most tracks.

The way I look at a race, the first thing I do is look for the best horse. This would be based on class, speed, and current form. I also mark down the final time that I expect the race to go in. If I think a race is going to go around 1:54 to 1:54 3/5, I’m going to concentrate on horses that can hit that time in their current form.

On half-mile and five-eighth tracks, most of the races are won by either a horse that leaves the gate, or a horse that goes first over. We all know that a first over trip can be a difficult trip. But it’s a bit of a misnomer because a lot of races are won by the first-over horse. The thing is, horses that race on or near the lead – close to the pace – win most of the races. Tactical speed is a critical handicapping factor in harness racing. The first-over horse, if in good form, often gets by a tiring leader and holds off the closers for the win.

When I bet on a closer, it’s usually because of two factors: 1) I think the horse is good value; 2) I think the horse has a class edge and can overcome a poor cover trip. So, basically, when I bet closers the horse is sitting on a big race. If I bet a closer from an outside post, the horse has to be a monster, and an overlay.

I rarely bet on a closer because I think the horse will get a nice setup off a disputed pace. This does happen occasionally. But in modern day harness racing, a fast pace often sets the race up for the first over horse or a horse that left and established early position.

In the Overbid Final, which was raced at the Meadowlands on March 17, last year’s champion Anndrovette was the 2-1 favorite, Higher and Higher went off at 2.30-1.

I picked Anndrovette to win, Put On A Show second, and Higher And Higher was my fourth choice.  Put On A Show went off at 3-1. Anndrovette and Put On A Show both left the gate, Anndrovette set the pace and won, Put On A Show finished second.

Here is part of my analysis that I wrote for Harness Eye:  “HIGHER AND HIGHER paced over similar last week… that being said, I expect the top two fillies to be ready for big efforts here and I’m not sure that Higher And Higher is fast enough to beat either one of them with the big money on the line. The pace will probably be much faster than it was last week and the key for Higher And Higher is going to be staying within striking range.”

The Overbid was an interesting study of pace. Just the week before, Higher And Higher came from off the pace to win against similar. But this was the final, with a lot more money on the line. When I made my odds line (for the USTA), I made Anndrovette 9-5 and Higher And Higher 4-1. I actually wouldn’t have bet Higher And Higher at any price in the race. She’s a terrific mare. But in the final, I knew that the pace would be much faster. Years ago, the fast pace may have set the race up for her. But in today’s sport, most of the top class races are won by horses that leave the gate or go first over. Higher And Higher figured to be too far off the pace, which would give her too much ground to make up. How are you supposed to catch a champ like Anndrovette from far back? Higher And Higher was 12 lengths behind at the quarter; too far behind.

This is something that you have to factor into your handicapping. After you’ve finished handicapping and spotted the main contenders, give extra points to any contender that you A) Expect to leave, or B) Think may be in a position to go first over. As for the contenders that seem likely to be racing on the outside with cover, I view that as a negative, especially on half and five-eighth tracks.

When I say “expect to leave,” I’m not just talking about the pacesetter. A lot of races are won by either the pocket horse, or the horse sitting behind the pocket horse (third on the pylons).

Trying to get into the head of the driver can help when figuring out which horses may leave. For instance, Ron Pierce has won a lot of major stakes races in the past few years. In almost all of them, he left the gate for early position.

Hall of Fame driver Dave Palone just become only the second driver in history to win 15,000 races. The great Herve Filion is the other. I like the racing at The Meadows. The five-eighths track is the least speed favoring track of that size in the country, which makes the racing more entertaining. However, tactical speed is still important. There may only be two or three wire to wire winners on a 15-race card, but quite a few winners are horses that were close to the pace, first over, or in the pocket.

Dave Palone is a master at getting his horses into good position. The Meadows utilizes a “slanted” starting gate, which is designed to help the outside horses. I like the slanted gate because anything a track can do to create parity in post positions makes for better racing.

When I see that Palone has an outside post, say the 9 post, and is driving a solid contender, I expect him to leave, even if the horse doesn’t show any recent races where it left the gate. Palone didn’t win 15,000 races by sitting 9th. He knows that the slanted gate helps outside leavers, so if he has a good horse, he’s leaving. Of course Palone is a master at timing the gate, he could get a mule to the top on the first turn, and that helps a lot. A lot of drivers don’t get out quick enough and they get parked. Palone wins plenty of races from off the pace, too, but usually from a better post.

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