04/01/2015 1:35PM

Pandolfo: Warm weather creates a speed game

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The warmer weather is finally here. For a harness handicapper, the change of seasons requires an adjustment. The profile of harness races has changed over the years. The races favor horses close to the pace much more than they did years ago. And from now until late fall, early speed will do even better than it does during the winter.

Part of the reason is that the races will go faster. Cold, windy nights slow the races down and sometimes this helps closers because they have more time to catch up. But faster races mean faster last halves, and that makes it tougher for closers.

Another reason why speed will do well is the opening of several five-eighth tracks that don't race during the winter. Harrah's Philadelphia is generally a very speed favoring track.  Pocono Downs is usually speed favoring, but the bias is not as severe as Philadelphia. Tioga Downs is the least speed favoring of the three. But, make no doubt about it, leavers will win a lot of the races at all three of these tracks.

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As for the half mile tracks, they are always speed favoring, but even more so during the warmer weather.

Leavers win such a high percentage of harness races that I think it's fair to wonder if a handicapper could devise a strategy that aims to take advantage of the speed favoring profile. In my opinion, any time you bet on a horse on a half mile or five-eighth track, and that horse is not either on the lead, in the pocket, or first over, you don't have much of a chance of winning that bet. And the further the horse is from the lead, the worse your chances are.

Let's say that you don't want to change the way you handicap now. If you're winning, why should you? Maybe this strategy is simply used for saver bets. And, if you're not winning, a more precise, defined strategy like this may be able to help improve your bottom line.

The main idea is, only bet on horses that you think will be leaving the gate. That's step one. The next step is to look for leavers in races where there does not appear to be a lot of potential speed.

Trying to find a "lone speed" horse is certainly not new. But, in harness racing, there aren't that many races where you can find one horse that figures to get away with an easy lead. However, there are plenty of races where it looks like only two horses may leave. And many times one of those horses wins. This is especially true on half and five-eighth tracks, but plenty of leavers will win on the two turn tracks as well.

If you only bet on horses that leave the gate your chances of cashing tickets is very good. This is especially true if the leaver either sets the pace or sits in the two-hole. I've seen entire weeks at several different tracks where over 70% of the winners were either first or second at the half. And, first over horses also do well. When you bet leavers you actually have three ways your horse can win—wire to wire, sit a two- or three-hole and rally, or leave, tuck, and go first over.

Here are some Steps on how to incorporate this strategy into your handicapping:

Gate Speed Spot Play Strategy

1—Look for horses that have good gate speed.

2—Look for races that appear to have only two likely leavers; preferably from good posts.

3—On half and five-eighth tracks, concentrate on the better posts, preferably with a win percentage of 10% or higher. If the win percentage is 8% or higher, only bet on potential longshots and be very selective.

4—Stick to aggressive drivers.

5—Regular handicapping principles apply. Look for respectable recent form, competitive final time speed and drop-downs.

Here are a few more precise adjustments relating to step number 2. At Yonkers, in its one mile races, look for potential leavers from posts 1 through 5. As for post 6, I would only take a shot if the odds are attractive and the horse has very good gate speed and an aggressive driver. I would not bet posts 7 or 8 at all.

On most half mile tracks, I would concentrate on posts 1 through 6, but make sure that any potential bet from post 6 offers good value..

Five-eighth tracks are a little trickier. You have to check the post position stats because some tracks, like The Meadows, use the slanted gate and that makes it easier for horses to leave from the outside. At The Meadows, post 9 wins at 5.6%. Just for comparison, at Dover Downs, which doesn't use a starting gate, the extreme outside post is 8 and that wins at 4.5%.

Still, it’s tough to cash bets from outside posts.  It requires a skilled handicapper and gambler to know when a horse is good value from the low percentage posts. You're better off only looking for leavers from posts that do well. For example, at Dover Downs, posts 1 through 5 are clearly the best posts. But, post 6 has won at 8.4% this year, and post 7 is winning at 7.4%. This isn't terrible. But I prefer to bet on posts that win at least 10%. At 8%, I need very good value. Less than 8%, I'm probably not betting unless the value is through the roof; a live longshot.

Odds are always important no matter how you handicap. Don't be afraid to be selective. There are a lot of races that are difficult to read. In other words, races where it's tough to figure out which horses will be leaving. Conversely, there are races where you know who's leaving but the horse is 1-2. If you're selective, and you focus on horses that have good gate speed, decent form, and a good gate driver, you can cash a lot of bets.

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.