The morning line as a handicapping tool

by Brett Sturman

Your average harness horseplayer understands the concept of the morning line – or programmed odds – that a horse is assigned, and yet the morning line still carries more weight than it should in driving the final odds. Some of the more sophisticated horseplayers use this to their advantage.

Despite being not much more than a single person’s (or a single machine’s) estimation, the morning line is often viewed as some type of mythical number and it can have a mental effect on handicapping.

How many times do we see 3-1 morning line horses that are “dead on the board” at odds of 6-1 with a minute before the race goes off, and yet still go off in the final flashes at 3-1 (and more often than not, don’t race well). It’s because there are a ton of people out there who carelessly play the races and see “value” on a 3-1 horse in the program that sits at double those odds right before post time, even though the horse should never have been 3-1 in the first place.

In a single race, the best way to use the morning line in handicapping is to be aware of it, but not put too much stock into it. In horizontal wagers such as Pick 3s and Pick 4s, the morning line does become more of a factor.

The question I ask myself is why are certain horses being bet the way they are, relative to their morning line? Are they truly that much better (or worse) than their morning line suggests, or may something else be at play? Like almost anything else with betting horses, there aren’t any real hard and fast rules; it becomes more about feel in each situation.

If a horse is at 10-1 in the morning line and now opens at 8-5, you have to ask yourself what is going on. Was there a recent barn change to Burke or Allard, or a driver change to Tetrick or Gingras? Second time off the layoff, or first time Lasix? These are obvious instances of why horses often get and in these cases, a player needs to decide for themselves if the current odds being offered are fair knowing the morning line is moot. But other times horses get bet are less obvious, and these instances warrant paying strong attention to.

This Tuesday at Yonkers an 8-year-old mare named Elliesjet N raced in a N/W $5,000 condition race and was assigned a 20-1 morning line while starting from the dreaded post 8. She was making her second start at Yonkers since returning from Miami Valley and the week prior went off at 10-1 from post 6 against comparable foes. This time, she was hammered down to 3-1 throughout much of the betting and ended up closing as the 9-5 favorite. Accordingly, she blasted from the outside post, flew around the first turn to clear easy and then coasted as a never-a-doubt, wire-to-wire winner.

If there was ever an example of “they knew,” this one was it. The typical Joe Horseplayer isn’t unloading early on horses that have the profile Elliesjet N had including a 20-1 line from post 8, and the smart money this time was the right money. This mare didn’t look uncompetitive and a case for her certainly could have been made, but the way she was bet in such an overwhelming way had to make you aware that at the very least, an aggressive effort would be coming.

At almost all harness racing tracks, early money of just a couple hundred dollars can make people take notice and this often comes from those in the industry or connected to the horses in some way. Because of this, you have to ask yourself if the money coming in (or not) on a horse makes sense.

In a different example, a 6-year-old trotter Celebrity Pegasus took a ton of money a couple weeks ago in a N/W $15,000 race at the Meadowlands, getting bet from an 8-1 morning line all the way down to 9-5. In this case, it was obvious to see what was going on and this was a case of the smart money being wrong. Celebrity Pegasus was making his second start at the Meadowlands after closing in :26.4 in his first start since the Dover opens, but was still up against what I saw as superior foes in Theresademoninme and Opulent Yankee. Celebrity Pegasus raced well enough but couldn’t threaten the top two and as this case illustrates, it’s much easier to decide whether to go with a horse or toss one if you can understand the reasons why they are getting bet to begin with.

Horizontal wagers such as daily doubles, Pick 3’s, 4’s and so forth present opportunities where morning lines can be exploited. In a single race everyone gets to see the odds changes at the same time, but there are clear overlays if you can identify what the line movements will be in multi-race sequences.

Let’s say in the third leg of a Pick 4 there is a horse with a 12-1 morning line that you know full well was a bad morning line and the horse is likely to go off at closer to 5-1. If you wait until that race to play it, you’ll get the same 5-1 odds as everyone else. But in a Pick 4 where you have identified this horse ahead of time, he’ll end up paying much more than the 5-1 worth because others will have overlooked it due to the 12-1 morning line. Although the morning line is just one person’s estimation, it doesn’t play out that way in reality.

Admittedly, I find myself guilty at times of being influenced by the morning lines even though I know better. It’s one reason that I’d rather handicap from a track’s proof’s (the program prior to driver changes and odds assignments), so that I’m not influenced in the slightest bit by the odds. Perhaps it’s also a “herd mentality” that people have where it’s easier to lose together on a horse that the program says should be short rated rather than step out and bet a higher rated morning line horse even though for all intents and purposes they may be at an equal chance of winning.

It’s easy to identify bad morning lines, but harder to pick actual long shots. Conversely, there will be times that a short-priced morning line favorite appears to have no chance based on the fact that he’s drifted up in odds, and the skill comes in identifying that perhaps the horse’s current odds are more appropriate than the morning line it was given. Instead of being what some would call dead on the board, he may now be much more playable at 7-1 than it was at 7-2.

On limited occasions, there truly is smart money – unanticipated money that ends up being correct. But in most cases the flow of money on a horse makes sense if you look hard enough. The lesson is to stick with your opinion if you feel strong about it and don’t be swayed because of large movements from the morning line; it has no more knowledge than you do.