Changing of the Morning Line

by Brett Sturman

Selections from this column last week went two out of three but despite both being selected based on morning line odds of 6-1 the two winners paid paltry win mutuels of $4.00 and $3.80, respectively. And in neither case was I the least bit surprised.

Morning line odds — or odds as they appear in program pages — are clearly taking a hit today in harness racing.

In general, the morning line odds are set for each horse as to mirror how bettors will rate those same horses’ chances at race time. In recent times however, the difference with the regularity between a horses odds as posted in the program compared to the actual odds as the race goes off has never been greater.

In one of two instances just from this print last week, Windsun Glory was a fresh acquisition to the Ron Burke barn, making her fourth start for the top trainer following wins from two of her prior three races in which she cruised. The 6-1 morning line should have never been that high and I noted as much when stating she was bound to get hammered down from her initial odds offering, which she did while en route to an easy wire-to-wire score. In the other instance, fellow 6-1 morning line proposition and former classmaster Iam Bonasera drew the rail while dropping to his lowest level on view for superior driving and training connections. At 90 cents on the dollar, he too was put on the front and never faced a serious threat while closing out the nightcap event.

With purely coincidental timing, today (Jan. 6) will mark the first time in the history of the Meadowlands Racetrack that a computerized morning line will be deployed. This will come on the heels not from the two instances as described above, but from routine similar occurrences that have taken place at the track in recent meets.

As Meadowlands Racing & Entertainment general manager and COO Jason Settlemoir told me, “We (the Meadowlands) realize that people have fiercely criticized the morning line odds-makers at many tracks for decades, but it seemed like those criticisms have really ramped up over the years.” Using the Trackmaster computerized morning line, which is also currently in use at many other harness tracks, Settlemoir added the Meadowlands wanted to try something new and to see what the Trackmaster line would look like at the track.

It’s worth taking a moment to look at how we got here; not just with regards to the Meadowlands, but to the industry as a whole.

Way back when, the old school role of an odds-maker was largely that individual’s sole responsibility at a track. I’ve never been one personally, but those who have performed the role of morning line odds-maker can tell you that in order for the job to be done properly, assigning the program odds for each race card requires a substantial amount of skill and time in order to master the art night in and night out.

Today, the subjective art of assigning the program odds has largely been lost. It’s not uncommon for the track odds-maker to also be the same tracks resource for marketing, public relations, announcer, program vendor or slot machine attendant. At least in part due to the competing priorities, the quality of morning lines across the board has noticeably suffered.

The increasing disparity between a horse’s program odds and actual race odds creates a number of obvious perception issues. First and foremost is the integrity of the racetrack.

If any track is consistently publishing nonsensical morning line odds, it sends the signal to me that they don’t have a high regard for their racing product. And if a track is indifferent towards the product it’s putting forth, why would anyone want to watch it let alone wager on it.

The second issue is the integrity of the race itself. This doesn’t apply to many of us who are already students of the game, but what is it supposed to mean to a novice when a 12-1 programmed longshot rightfully so opens up at 4-5? For those new or not yet well versed to the sport, it might be reasonable to interpret the odds fluctuations as some type of inside information or ‘race fixing’ rather than simply a poor morning line.

So the question now becomes, are the computerized morning lines any better than their human counterparts today. Based from what I have seen where its employed elsewhere, I’m surprised in myself to be inclined to say ‘yes’, the program odds are better. While not perfect, they do provide a certain level of consistency. Of course, no matter how reliable the predictive modeling is, there will always be variables and nuances that the algorithms that go into the creation of the computerized morning line won’t be able to correctly capture and apply.

To safeguard against gross anomalies that can occur as a result of the Trackmaster system generated line, the Meadowlands will be adding a resource in Justin Horowitz to assist with looking over the morning lines as generated by Trackmaster to make sure that nothing is unreasonably out of line.

Settlemoir said, “We (Meadowlands) are hopeful that the computerized morning lines will get the job done, but if we see that the ‘human line’ is better because of all the intangibles that can’t be picked up on, we won’t hesitate to switch back.”

It won’t take a person long to notice the structural changes in the odds assignments in tonight’s program, and for some it might take some getting used to. Settlemoir closed his explanation of the morning line shift to me by stating that, above all, the Meadowlands wants to do what’s best for its customers. I, for one, think this new school approach is worth taking a shot with.

Picks of the Week

Last Week’s Bankroll: $794
Total Wagers: $113
Total Return: $100
This Week’s Bankroll: $781

Woodbine – ‪Saturday, Jan. 7

Race 4: PAPARAZZI HANOVER had the misfortune of winding up in a blazing 1:52:1 mile from post 7 while seeking a softer spot at Flamboro on New Year’s Day; talk about a backfire. He didn’t have much luck either here two back when he went a hopeless overland trip in that 12-horse Jackpot field; seems overdue for some better luck and will offer a better price than he did as the beaten favorite here three and four back. HALF A BILLION was one of the only few that managed to close in the aforementioned Jackpot race from 12 weeks ago and this one closed in :26:3 that night; should be moving forward once again towards the end of the mile. BOOMBOOM BALLYKEEL is always a threat with these and I wouldn’t disregard despite going off-form here in November.

$10 Win/Place 5

$1 Exacta Box 2/5/6/7

Race 5: TRASHYTONGUETALKER was used early into a quick opening quarter when last seen three weeks ago. He was just fair that night, but trainer Weller has been doing good work of late. The winner from his race two back went onto race in the Preferred next out; I think we can take a swing on this one at a square price. ALWAYS A HOTSHOT cruised in that recent qualifier for Mayotte to win handily in 1:53:4. I’d love if not for this being his first start since November; likely will be coming from the back but I’d be tempted if the price were high enough. AWESOMENESS just missed last out in the Valedictory final and is certain to land the deserved role of favorite tonight. Maxwell trainee was first or second in all but a single race last year; will likely need to go a tick faster tonight than what he’s accustomed to.

$10 Win/Place 6
$2 Exacta Box 2/6/8

Race 10: NIRVANA SEELSTER was cooked last out on Dec. 10 when pressed to make the lead through a :26 flat opening quarter and then gave way late. We all know what he’s capable of at his best and this is a level he can typically handle; blasts. COMPANY goes from post 10 to the pole while making his fourth start off the claim for Moreau; was a 1:50:3 winner two back and is a player from the inside. ASAP exits a game try on the engine and picks up MacDonnell who drove him to an open length score three back. VEGAS ROCKS fits on paper and DOVUTO HANOVER makes his first start since August and switches barns; needs one?

$1 Exacta Box 1/5/7/8