11/27/2015 12:20AM

Pandolfo: Time and other important handicapping factors

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There are a lot of different handicapping factors. A few years ago I participated in an online harness racing contest. Prior to the contest, seven harness handicappers were asked to give their most important handicapping factors and most overrated factors. For overrated factors, three of the handicappers pointed to time.

Time, meaning final time, has often been mentioned as an overrated harness handicapping factor. But I've seen conclusive statistical data that proves that fastest recent time is actually the most predictive single win factor. But it does get tricky.

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Sometimes a track will have a late closer series. Depending on how many horses enter the series, there are several races each week for a few weeks and eventually the horses that win these preliminary races come back to meet in the Final, which has an elevated purse. What often happens is that a couple of the horses rise to the occasion and dominate their events and then face off in the final. The final of these events is usually a fast race, and at least half of the horses in the race are completely overmatched.

The horses that struggled often have he fastest recent final time when they return for their next start.  The reason for this is because they came out of the fast Late Closer Series Final. Over the years, I've seen many of these horses that were a non-factor in a stakes race or Final go off as the favorite in their next start and show little. This is the classic suck along time, which is essentially a final time that the horse was led to by the other superior horses in the race.

I'll admit that this is a genuine misleading element of using final time as a handicapping factor. However, an experienced handicapper can see through it. When a horse is actively involved in the race, the final time is usually reliable. For instance, if the horse leaves and gets involved in the pace, or goes up to challenge, or even races with cover and makes a three wide brush to enter contention. This horse was not an overmatched horse merely following horses, it was competitive, so it’s final time is legitimate.

Of course, you should compare a horse's recent final times with its overall race record. If you see a horse pacing in 1:59 consistently, then it moves way up in class, sits 7th all the way with no moves and goes in 1:58, that's a pretty obvious suck along. The horse has 1:59 speed but it went a second faster when it chased faster horses.

On the important handicapping factors, the seven handicappers pointed to these factors: How the race will be run…which horses are leaving….which horses are the best finishers….which horses will be close at the half mile call…and how does the horse fit on class.

Let's break these down. How the race will be run, which horses are leaving, and which horses will be close at the half mile call, can be combined as a single handicapping factor on half mile and five eighth tracks. If you're a handicapper who likes to bet these smaller ovals, most of these tracks are speed favoring. So I would agree that position is important. The key is, if you're betting horses on half or five eighth tracks, you want to try to bet horses that you think will either be leaving the gate or going first over. You also have to try to avoid betting horses from low percentage post positions, especially if you don't expect the horse to leave fast.

Which horses are the best finishers is also very important. I've studied this on my computer handicapping system, The Diamond System. I've found that a single factor like "fastest last half" or "fastest final quarter" is more useful on two turn tracks. This would include seven eighths and one mile tracks like Cal Expo, Balmoral, Hawthorne, Hoosier, Mohawk, and The Meadowlands. Horses that can finish fast win at these tracks and closers can rally to win from off the pace.

That being said, it's hard to discount finishing speed on the three and four turn tracks. But you have to find horses that can finish gamely, but are likely to be on or near the lead.

Here's a typical half-mile track scenario. The one and four horses are the likely leavers. The two-horse is in good form, and the six-horse is in good form but is a closer. The two is a good finisher who has some solid last quarters. Between the one and four, the four-horse is a better finisher than the one. The most likely winners are the four-horse, either wire to wire or from the pocket, or the two-horse from first over. The one will show speed but may not hold and the six will finish well for an underneath spot. So, you see, even though speed and position is important, the horse that finishes the best must still be respected. Finishing power is a combination of fitness and class.

I'll cover class in a future column, but longtime handicapper Bob Zanakis had a good point, saying that he prefers horses that are changing classes rather than horses that have been stuck in the same class for some time. For instance, a sharp horse moving up in class or a horse dropping down.

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.