05/13/2015 1:00PM

Pandolfo: Top off-the-pace drivers

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John Campbell is the all time earnings leader in harness racing.

Following up a recent column on the best early speed drivers, let’s take a look at some of my favorite drivers to bet behind closers.

All of the great drivers, even if they're considered aggressive or patient, excel on or off the pace. Drivers like Yannick Gingras, Tim Tetrick, Dave Miller, Ron Pierce, etc., are great all-around drivers.

Driving from off the pace is perhaps tougher than ever. Harness racing is a speed biased sport and from a percentage standpoint, horses that leave have an advantage. That's why drivers who win consistently from off the pace have to be very talented.

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Driving from off the pace may look easy. You just follow horses and swing wide at the three quarters or turning for home. But it's a lot more complicated than that. Years ago most of the races were slow during the middle-half. Breaking it down by quarters, most races were fast-slow-slow-fast. Since it wasn't that easy to go wire to wire, once a driver got the lead, he put on the brakes. The first over horse wasn't always all-out during the third quarter. Top drivers like Herve Filion would rate their horse first over and save something for the stretch.

These days, the quarters are often fast-slow-fast-slow. The drivers try to slow the pace down during the second quarter, but the third quarter is usually fast. Because of this, the modern day harness driver has to think differently. When on the lead, a lot of drivers are not looking to slow the pace down. Instead, they speed up during the third quarter. The idea is to extend their lead and make it tougher for the closers to catch up. This style of racing makes racing from off the pace tricky.

Here are some of my favorite off-the-pace drivers:

John Campbell - It goes without saying that Campbell tops the list. Campbell is the most successful harness driver of all time and he can do it all. But when driving closers, Campbell's timing is masterful. Campbell doesn't drive all horses the same, just as he doesn't drive all races the same. He's not predictable, which is fun to watch. For instance, if he's second-over following a horse that's gung ho and fighting for the lead, he doesn't always stay right on his cover's back. Many drivers will urge their horse to keep up to cover, but Campbell doesn't allow the other horses to dictate how he's going to drive his horse. If his instincts tell him that the pace may collapse, or he feels that his horse doesn’t want to be rushed, he'll bide his time and save the horse's energy for the stretch. He's not only won thousands of races this way, but he's engineered off-the-pace upsets in countless stakes races. Campbell is the master and if a young driver wants to learn how to win from off the pace, go to the video tape, watch and learn.

Brian Sears – In an interview with Brian Sears last year, he told me that even though you often have to be more aggressive in today's sport, he's not the type of driver that's going to burn horses up on the front end or in pace duels. It's not his style. He likes to save something for the stretch. Sears is patient and drives smart. The fact that he has had such a tremendous career as a finesse driver is a testament to his skills. Sears does most of his driving at Yonkers. In my opinion, Yonkers is a difficult track to drive at.

Right now there are two types of races at Yonkers, one mile and a mile and a quarter. The one mile races start close to the turn, have a long stretch and a passing lane. Because of the layout, the skill of the driver is magnified. With the passing lane and the long stretch, the outside flow often gets underway late at Yonkers. Sometimes the first over horse doesn't pull until the five-eighths. But despite this, Sears has been very successful at Yonkers and he's won a lot of races from off the pace.  In the longer races, which are all trotting events, the pace is usually slower, which makes for a better overall race because the outside flow can get into the race earlier. Patience and timing are critical in these races and that plays into Sears’ hands.  

Trace Tetrick - Trace Tetrick, who picked up his 3,000th career win on Tuesday (May 12) is best known as the perennial leading driver at Hoosier Park. The talented 28-year-old has already opened up a nine-win lead in the driver standings at Hoosier this year with 55 wins and is winning at a 19% rate. Hoosier, which is a seven-eighths oval (two turns), is an anomaly because it is a closers track. Tetrick wins plenty of races on the lead, since he now gets more favorites to drive. But even when he drives at other tracks, such as Dover Downs or the Meadowlands, he displays an uncanny knack for winning from off the pace.

Brett Miller - Not all that long ago Brett Miller was a rising star in Ohio where he was often seen on the lead over the half mile oval at Northfield. But now that he's established himself on the east coast, Miller has shown that he can be patient. Unlike most harness drivers, Miller doesn't lean back in the bike in the stretch drive. He rocks forward and sort of loose-lines the horse, reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite drivers and Hall of Famer, Buddy Gilmour. Old school style or not, the bottom line is Brett Miller gets horses to finish explosively and he has won a lot of races from off the pace at the Meadowlands this season, many at double-digit odds.

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.

 

Jeff Biever More than 1 year ago
Bob, I agree with everything in your column except perhaps your assessment that Yonkers is a difficult track to drive at. I concede that it may be difficult to come from far off the pace with a natural closer. The passing lane, however, has dumbed down the racing style. As you point out, the outside flow often does not develop until the 5/8. The pocket horse, and for that matter, the horse sitting third, has no incentive to pull, given the advantages the passing lane offers. After all, with the inflated purses offered, getting a check for second or third, and not having to use the horse until the stretch, can be a big inducement to drive very conservatively. Your thoughts?
Bob Pandolfo More than 1 year ago
Hi Jeff. I hate the passing lane for the reasons you state. If I ran Yonkers I would close the passing lane, eliminate one mile races entirely, and I would use three distances, mile and a sixteenth, mile and five sixteenths, and mile and nine sixteenths. In other words, longer races with the start as far back as possible.
Jeff Biever More than 1 year ago
A compromise, since your proposals have no chance of adoption, would be to eliminate the passing lane, and have the starting gate release the field, a la Maywood, well before the accustomed spot. Outside leavers at Maywood have a very chance of getting to the front. In fact, when one considers Maywood, Monticello, and esp. Northfield, the amount of movement there is much greater at these three tracks. This despite the fact that all offer considerably lower racing stock than Yonkers,
Bob Pandolfo More than 1 year ago
I agree, but Yonkers raced at a mile and a sixteenth and did away with it even though the racing was better. Posts 6, 7 and 8 literally won twice as high as percentage than they do at a mile. The reason why I say that Yonkers is tough to drive is the races start on the turn. Bartlett is actually the only driver that has mastered leaving there.
Tom Dubrick More than 1 year ago
Very nice piece.....respect for all. Tpd
chris More than 1 year ago
Pandy,I think Scott Zeron should be included in this discussion. I call his closing move the "Scotty Swoop".
Bob Pandolfo More than 1 year ago
Chris, I wouldn't argue with that. Zeron is one of my favorites.
Cold More than 1 year ago
at some point very soon, trainers will not be listing this guy whatsoever he is absolutely terrible
Cold More than 1 year ago
Scott Zeron is awful all around but when he come from off the pace he is ABSOLUTE Brutal!!! He gets in more trouble then any driver and has terrible timing....No way he belongs in this discussion unless it is to define "BAD DRIVERS" at some point very soon, trainers will not be listing this guy whatsoever he is absolutely terrible
William Waters More than 1 year ago
Cold, you and I must be watching different races. Scotty is one of the top 2 up-and-coming young driving stars in the sport. Future Hall of Famer.
chris More than 1 year ago
Pandy,put Scotty Zeron in this discussion. I call his closing move, the Scotty "Swoop".