Monday, April 30, 2012

The Chips Take an Early Lead; The Pen vs. The Chip Handicappers Discuss Ship- Ins

(April 30, 2012) – The first leg of HANA Harness’ The Pen vs. The Chip – The Road to the Breeders Crown Handicapping Challenge co-sponsored by the Hambletonian Society, Meadowlands Racetrack, Tioga Downs, and Vernon Downs, is in the books and if the first leg is an indication of how the contest is going to go, it is going to be very competitive as Team Chip takes the lead with a small .03 advantage in the critical Win ROI statistic over Team Pen. However, the Pens are able to claim a moral victory as they have a .12 advantage in the Exacta ROI and ‘Mr. Trifecta’, Matt Keller, takes the early lead (Win ROI 1.18) over Scott Alberg of 4NJPICKS.COM (1.17) out of the gate. Trackmaster’s Chatsworth Consortium finished third in leg one. 

This week, the handicapping challenge heads to Freehold Raceway for a two day stand as our handicappers are ready to handicap the May 4 Lady Suffolk and May 5 Dexter Cup cards As these early season 3yo trotting stake races kick off the road to the Hambletonian and Hambletonian Oaks.
With the handicapping action heading to Central Jersey this week, we will be dealing with a lot of horses that have been racing at different tracks; often different size ovals. Unlike thoroughbred racing where except for a few ‘bull-rings’, the tracks seem to have the same configuration (two turns to a mile) where harness racing occurs on all size tracks; half mile (four turns to the mile), five eighths ovals (three turns), seven eighths and mile ovals (2 turns), and even a track like Colonial Downs where the standardbreds start from a chute in the backstretch and the mile involves only one turn. With the different size tracks, mile times can vary so an important question is how does one handicap races when you get horses coming in from tracks of different sizes?
We’ve asked the handicappers taking part in the handicapping challenge what they look for when a horse is coming in from a different track. Their responses are as follows:
Scott Alberg claims you need to look at several factors when a horse ships in to a half mile oval. Specifically, “When a racehorse shows no lines on a half, obviously you look for speed. But the key is whether or not such speed will zap the horse of its zip. In other words, at what point will a quick opening panel do the horse in. On the other hand, if a racehorse does not demonstrate speed, you need to determine whether or not such speed can be generated and, if so, will stamina come into play at some point. Speed, staying power and endurance are the ultimate weapons on the half-mile track and when a racehorse possesses all three in its arsenal, the rest of the field is pretty much at its mercy”.
Alberg suggests when a horse ships in from a half mile track to race on the larger ovals, it may be time to go to the video tape, “When a speed horse from a half-mile track visits a five-eighths, seven-eighths or mile track, the question then becomes whether or not the headstrong participant is able and willing to allow himself to get covered up without getting choked down. Race lines won’t necessarily answer this question but videotape review will. An obstinate pacesetter is generally not going to fare well on a larger racetrack unless he commands too much respect on the front end. In which case, the opposite is usually true but only if the horse is ratable”.
“When a horse either has never raced on a half mile track or new to a half mile track, I look for a few things”, says Matt Keller, “First, I am looking at my own speed ratings and how they relate to track. Certain tracks are notorious for being heavily speed bias as well as race completely different then other tracks. A horse may race 1:53 at one track, ship over to another and race 1:58. Horses are definitely for courses. Some prefer one track to another”. With regards to horses going to other size tracks, Keller suggest, “On horses coming to a different size oval, I want the best post position as well as early speed. Going from a half mile to five-eighths mile track is a completely different race. The amount turns can make a big difference as horses go around the half mile oval twice and roughly one and a half times on our area’s five-eighth mile ovals. Once again I look for early speed. Speed is dominant on those smaller tracks as well as good post position. I will stick to the first five posts, anything beyond that is generally not a good bet for a win bet. If I do bet on an outside horse, that horse has to figure as being dominant or has great early speed to be able to get over to the rail”.
When a horse comes in from a larger track to the half mile oval, Bob Pandalfo suggests,”If the horse has no lines on a half, beware of any horses that show breaks. If a horse breaks on a one mile track, there’s a good chance that it will have problems handling the tighter turns on a half mile track. Also look at the horse’s running style. If a horse comes from far off the pace on a one mile track, the horse may not like a half mile track where speed and quickness is an asset”. But when it comes to a horse going from the half to larger tracks, Pandalfo suggests, “There really is no way of knowing how a horse will handle a track until it races over it. If you’re an expert on standardbred pedigrees you could use pedigree to get an idea but very few harness handicappers analyze pedigrees”.
Mark McKelvie has seen many races over the half mile oval. McKelvie says, “When a horse is switching from a mile to a half [mile track], I immediately look for any past lines on a half. If no lines are shown I am skeptical because some horses just can't get over a half. I look for speed and a favorable post position for the first time half mile starters. A good post position can help that horse because the horse is closer to the rail going into the first turn which he could have trouble on”. With regards to horses going to larger ovals, McKelvie says, “As for a horse going from a half mile track to five-eighths or a mile track I don't worry too much because I feel horses will only improve on the bigger track and many tracks have banked turns like a half”.
“Hopefully, when a horse moves to a different sized oval, I can look at the past performances and see how well they have performed on that sized track in the past”, says Earl Paulson, “If they are shipping to a half-mile track for the first time, I would look to see how much success their trainer has had over that oval. If a trainer who is successful on half-mile track brings in a horse, I'm confident that they will be able to handle the turns, even if the horse doesn't show any charted lines over a half-mile track. If the trainer doesn't have a good record on a half-mile track, then I wouldn't have confidence in the horse unless the past performance lines showed very good early speed”.
Ray Schell offers his thoughts, “Primarily I look for ground gains (lengths made up) in the stretch for the last two or three races to see if the new track stretch length will be beneficial or hurtful. Secondly, I check my speed track ratings for the two tracks to make the comparison in pace and final times, and lastly, (if I get to see the post parade) I'll look for size to see if some moose [larger horse] might have a hard time with sharper turns or some smallish horse might be getting an edge on the half mile.
The past performance lines is the key to Bob Zanakis. According to Zanakis, “When shippers enter a new sized oval, I personally tend to look at whether they are primarily an early speed type, a stalker type or a closer. Once I get a feel for their strengths by viewing their past performance lines, I can use those that fit this new track oval. In essence, the smaller the course, the more turns and the more early speed is important”. Zanakis continues, “If a closer on a mile track ships to a smaller size track, his closing speed would not be as fast or effective. On the other hand, a front end type shipping to a smaller oval will benefit as horses cannot negotiate the turns as fast as the bigger tracks. It works both ways, a front runner at a half mile track will be hard pressed to wire the field at larger oval with only two turns instead of three or four. Rule of thumb, the larger the oval, the less important early speed has to do with winning”.
As a reminder, handicappers’ selections will be posted on the HANA Harness contest website ( ) no later than the morning of each leg’s race card (Friday and Saturday morning). In addition to the handicapping selections, statistical information tracking the handicappers is available as well as links to our sponsor’s websites.

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