Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pen and Chip Handicappers Discuss the Most Important and Overrated Handicapping Angles

(April 18, 2012) – With just a little over a week until the kick off 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, we asked some of our handicappers participating in the challenge what they felt the most important handicapping and overrated handicapping angles are. Here are their thoughts.
“The most important aspect of handicapping is visualizing the trip and predicting the fractions along the way,” states Scott Alberg (Pen), ”Visualizing the trip enables you to envision the position of each horse at each mile marker. Predicting the fractions along the way allows you to determine the stamina of the pace-setters. The least important aspect of handicapping is to ascertain the type of race bike a driver is using. The Meadowlands offers this new statistic during its post parade but it is somewhat pointless. The majority of drivers use their own race bikes anyway and their stats are widely known”.

“I would say the most over-rated factor when handicapping harness racing is capping purely on the final time of a horse”, says Matt Keller (Pen), “There are so many factors that aren't taken account in a race and it never shows on a past performance. Many horses with "good" final times are beaten an easy 7-10 lengths, tagging along for the ride at the end of the pack”. With regards to the most important aspect, Keller goes on to say, “The most important aspect to handicapping harness racing is good early speed as shown in form from the last 2-3 races. I want a horse that wants the lead and wants to wire the field. Most tracks are 1/2 to 5/8 miles and generally either the pacesetter, first over or pocket sitter win the race. I'd rather have the horse to catch then to catch a horse”.

“I think race mile times can be an overrated factor when handicapping”, says Mark McKelvie (Pen), “This can stand out especially in stakes events after eliminations are contested. The fact that each race sets up differently affects each race time and a 1:49 mile all out holds nothing to me over a horse who is closing hard or grinding out a victory on the front refusing to let anyone by going in 50-51 speed”. With regards to the most important thing, McKelvie goes on to say, “Without a doubt the most important thing to me is the last quarter of a mile. The last quarter tells you everything. I look for horses who know how to pass others in the stretch. Everyone loves the flashy last quarter speed but important to me is horses who show a lot of grit coming for home and those who are still progressing in that last eighth of a mile”.

According to Bob Pandolfo (Chip),” Class is very important in Handicapping. Horses with a class edge or a ‘touch of class’ usually end up beating the in-form horse that has been racing well but has never really accomplished much or beaten quality horses. For instance, if you’re handicapping a $15,000 claiming race and you’ve narrowed it down to two prime contenders. One only has 3 career wins against modest stock but shows solid recent form at the $15,000 level. The other horse has 30 career wins and $500,000 in earnings and looks to be rounding into form. In this situation, the horse with the proven class usually prevails”.

With regards to the most overrated factor Pandolfo says, “The most overrated factor is ‘smart money’. Some people think that the board shows which horses are ‘hot’ or being bet by people in the know. There is no such thing. Most horsemen and people working in the backstretch are notoriously terrible bettors. The true ‘smart’ money is bet by a few professional gamblers, but that money usually only shows up at tracks that have high handle. And professional bettor money comes into the pools late, mostly bet on longshots or overlays in exotic wagers”.

Chip handicapper Earl Paulson takes a different view; it is not a question of the most important or overrated handicapping angles as they change depending on the individual race. The key is to know how to rank the importance of each handicapping angle within the context of the particular race. “The importance of post position depends on the type of race,” Paulson states, “If it is the final of the Little Brown Jug, I would want the rail. If it’s a race for green trotters, I would not want the rail as many a young trotter will jump off-stride from post one when the gate pulls away and the rest of the field converges on them”. As for the driver and trainer, the top handlers at each racetrack are fairly equal in talent so Paulson suggests discounting that angle unless there is a change to someone who figures to be better suited to the horse than the previous handler.

Chip handicapper Ray Schell claims, “The most over-rated factor in harness racing is post position as ranked by percent wins. Posts 1 and 5 have the highest win percentages but in this modern day game, everyone knows it and that leads to those posts being overbet. ROI percentages for post positions would be more useful but those numbers are hard to come by”. As for the most important factor, Schell indicates the most important factor is predicting the call at the half mile pole for all the contenders in the race. Specifically, he says, “To develop this call order one needs to take into account, which horses can leave, how many will leave, who is going to surprise leave, class/driver changes and on some days, the wind and track condition effecting the leavers”.

“I find in the classification of the race itself as the most important factor in handicapping,” says Bob Zanakis (Pen), “One determines today’s race and its class and compares those in it to their previous competition. I prefer to bet those horses moving into the class (up or down) as opposed to those who have remained there for a couple of starts. Those moving up are in great shape and have every right to improve while those on the class drop have won at this level in the past”. Zanakis states, “The most over-rated handicapping tool is that of pure speed handicapping. The final times of a race are used but the manner in how the race was won will have a greater impact on the horse’s ability. Look at two horses with wins in 1:52 flat. Pure speed handicapping has them even in talent but one could have been racing against less talented horses and had his own way while the second horse was hung most of the mile. The two horses are not equal in ability although they have the same time”.

The kick-off of the handicapping challenge is next Saturday April 28 at Yonkers Raceway. The race card features the finals of the $455,000 George Morton Levy Memorial and the $297,000 Blue Chip Matchmaker Pacing Series. For a complete list of contest dates, please visit the contest website at:

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