04/15/2015 1:07PM

Pandolfo: Top speed drivers

Driver Jason Bartlett is first in the standings at Yonkers Raceway with an 18% win rate.

My last column focused on early speed and the need to take advantage of this bias during the warm weather months. Along similar lines, another handicapping factor involves horses that raced against the speed bias in their last start.

You'll see this scenario repeat itself often: the outside-in angle. A horse draws a tough outside post and finishes willingly or has pace but a tough trip. The next start, the horse gets a post that wins at a higher percentage. In this case, even if the driver still elects to race the horse off the pace, it's chances are improved.  But many times the driver will leave.

Most drivers are aware of the speed bias that exists at many tracks. They know that speed holds up better in the warmer weather. So, many times when a horse closes well against the bias, the driver is going to take a shot and leave the gate the next time.

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As a handicapper, the more you follow a particular circuit the better. Sometimes the past performances can be misleading. For instance, say a horse has been racing off the pace in its last six starts and showed improved form in his most recent outing. You know the horse because you've followed the track closely, and you know the horse is capable of leaving the gate when it's in good form. You have an advantage over handicappers who don't follow the racing that closely. They'll look at the program and never expect the horse to leave.

You'll see many horses that don't show a lot of early speed in the past performances leave the gate. That's because the driver knows the horse and once the horse is fit, or in a better spot, the driver will look to put the horse into play early. You'll also see a driver get more aggressive when a horse drops in class.

The speed bias is real. Look at some of the statistics from my bi-weekly Sharp Horse and Track Trends report. At Northfield, over a three-night period from April 6 through April 8, 24 horses went wire to wire and several others won from the pocket. At Dover over the same three-day period, 22 horses went wire to wire. At Philadelphia on April 8, 10 horses went wire to wire. Leavers have been doing very well at Pocono Downs, Freehold, Saratoga, and last week even the Meadowlands was speed favoring both nights (4/10 & 4/11), with 14 wire to wire winners.

Which drivers excel on the front end? This is subjective, but I'll give you some of my favorites.  I'm not going to list all of the obvious great drivers, because all top drivers are good on the front end. John Campbell, for instance, is a patient driver.  He might be the best ever from off the pace. But Campbell is certainly good on the front end, and he's won a lot of major stakes races when he left the gate. All of the Hall of Fame drivers and current stars can do it all. So suffice to say, these elite drivers all excel with leavers: Corey Callahan, John Campbell, Yannick Gingras, Dave Palone, Ron Pierce, Tim Tetrick.

Here are a few drivers that I personally love betting on front-end horses:

Jason Bartlett - This is my number one. Bartlett is currently the leading driver at Yonkers with an 18% win rate. Even though Bartlett has had enormous success, with $64 million in career earnings, I still think of him as an underrated driver because he doesn't get many drives outside of Yonkers. I find that shocking. Owners of stakes horses are missing an opportunity.

Bartlett is a spark-plug driver who can get on a horse for the first time and wake the horse up. When he leaves the gate, Bartlett isn't good, he's amazing. He's a great gate driver, the best in the sport, and he gets horses to stay-on nearing the wire.

What really separates Bartlett from the rest is the amount of races he wins from the two-hole. Some drivers don't leave hard enough, which lets the pacesetter get away with a soft first quarter. Others leave too hard and their horse is empty in the stretch. The best front end and pocket driver I ever saw was the “Redman”, Carmine Abbatiello, who had it down to a science. Mike Lachance was also outstanding winning with leavers, as was Walter Case, Jr. But right now, in my opinion, Bartlett is the best in the business out of the two-hole and with leavers in general. Bartlett is the modern day Redman.

Scott Zeron - Scottie Z is only 25 years old. He was the youngest driver in the history of the sport to reach 2,000 wins. Driving at the Meadowlands, it's usually not that easy to win on the front end.  Zeron's touch, or whatever you want to call it, is a thing of beauty to watch. He can zip a horse to the lead from an outside post and then back down the second quarter with uncanny finesse. I personally believe that some drivers have what we call "soft hands," where they can slow a horse down without choking the energy out of the horse. It's something you either have or you don't.  Zeron has it and he's going to steal a lot of races on the front end during his career.

George Napolitano, Jr. - This veteran has been a dominant driver on five-eighth tracks for years. Napolitano has an unorthodox style, with a lot of movement, but it works. Even if he has to use a horse hard to get the lead, Georgie Nap's “shake 'n bake” style coaxes a little more out of them and somehow they hang on.

George Brennan - When Brennan was driving regularly at the Meadowlands, he won a lot of races on the front end on nights when the track was tiring. You have to be very good to do that, and Brennan is very good out of the gate.

Aaron Merriman - Merriman drives at both The Meadows and Northfield. He wins a ton of races, and he excels with leavers whether he sits the pocket or cuts the mile.

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.