11/21/2012 10:31AM

Pandolfo: Two-horse exacta box still among best bets

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It used to be that the main challenge of betting horses was picking winners. But in modern day harness racing, you can hit 44% winners just by betting the favorite at most half-mile tracks. So the main challenge becomes not to pick a winner, but to show a profit.

Harness writers, myself included, often write about “looking for value.” We imply that the road to profits comes from betting against the chalk. But with the percentage of winning favorites being so high, it’s hard to look at betting the same way we did twenty or thirty years ago.

When I first started betting harness races, the favorite usually won about 33% of the time. I was a longshot bettor, always looking to bet against the favorite. To me, it made no sense to bet the favorite when two out of three times it would lose. But with favorites averaging 44% on half-mile tracks, and just as high at several five-eighth tracks, I can understand why people bet favorites. The truth is, unless you have deep pockets, you can’t take as many shots as we did years ago.

When I bet against the chalk back in the 70’s and 80’s, I knew there was a good chance that the favorite would lose. So right from the start my chances of hitting that 8-1 shot was pretty good. With favorites winning a high percentage, those who buck the trend are subjecting themselves to long losing streaks and a lot of good-value bets finishing second.

Now I have to admit even back then many of my longshot or overlay bets finished second. But I didn’t mind because I knew that I had made a good bet. But now, many more of my longshot and overlay bets finish second, often beaten by the favorite.

The solution is obvious: bet the exacta. One of the best bets in harness racing is the old two-horse exacta box. It was always a good bet, but it may be an even better bet now. Years ago when I bet exactas I usually bet more than two horses. My favorite bets were horses in the odds range, 6-1 to 15-1. Occasionally I would hit a horse that paid more than 15-1 odds, but generally speaking, my profit came from this odds range.

Because of the odds, when I bet exactas, I would usually key my longshot with three horses in exacta boxes. And even then, I often threw in a 3-horse exacta box besides the key plays.

But, again, that was when the favorites usually lost. Now that the favorites win more often, they also finish second more often. This is why the two-horse exacta box is so attractive. Rather than spreading a $40 bet around in different combinations, a simple $20 two-horse exacta box is often the smarter bet. And if I do play a saver, most of the time I will just include one other horse. For instance, say I like a 10-1 shot and the favorite looks legitimate. I also think that the second choice has a solid shot. I’ll bet a $20 exacta box with my 10-1 shot and the favorite, and then a $5 exacta box with my 10-1 shot and the second choice. But many times the only horse I’m worried about is the favorite, so I stick to the two-horse box.

I’m often amazed at the payoffs I get. Sometimes the bettors are more focused on the trifectas and the exactas offer excellent value, even with the favorite.

But the bottom line is, when the favorite is winning over 40% of the time, it often makes sense to use your value horse in a two-horse box with the favorite. Naturally if you really hate the favorite and want to take a stand, that’s understandable. But my point is, you can hit a high percentage of exactas with just a two-horse box if you’re a good handicapper and pick your spots.

Sometimes I like to turn my two-horse exacta bet into a trifecta. I’ll bet both, the exacta and the trifecta. But, again, I feel that with the form so solid in harness racing, the best approach is often simple.

Here is my approach. Let’s say that I like a horse that’s 6-1, the 5 horse, and the chalk is the 2 horse. So I’m going to bet a 2-5 exacta box. But I always handicap the race through and pick my top four contenders. So my picks in the race are, 5-2-3-4.

Now I’m going to bet these trifectas 2 with 5 with 3,4 and 5 with 2 with 3,4. Now, on half-mile tracks in particular, I hate leaving the 1 horse out of the trifecta. At this point I’ll take a closer look to see if the 1 can be eliminated. For me to eliminate the 1 horse, the horse has to be completely overmatched. But let’s say that the 1 horse looks okay. I’m now going to play a few more trifectas, 2-5-1 and 5-2-1. So what I’m doing is keying the 2-5 in the top two slots and using the 1, 3 and 4 in the third slot. The reason why I throw in the 1 horse is twofold. For one, I’m sick of the one horse getting in there and beating me. 2). I’ve seen computer generated stats that show that on half and five-eighth tracks ROI suffers when the one horse is dropped (because the 1 horse hits the board so often).

The strength of this approach is that I’m not over-spreading, and since the races are so formful, I have a good chance of cashing a ticket.

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.