With no North American harness racing to wager on, yet, here’s what you need to know to bet on Australian racing.
by Jerry Connors
As we continue without any pari-mutuel harness racing on which to bet in North America, wagering services, through computer or phone, do continue to offer up some harness action – although “the rules” are a good deal different than what we are used to in the already-challenging North American game.
I have my betting service through Penn National, as in Pennsylvania we were (at least at the time) supposed to sign up with the most local service provided. And through Penn National, I have been able to see some Australian harness racing cards, and I have sought to try to come to an understanding of their racing and their fields before the races go – trying to keep sharp my handicapping skills (betting we’ll talk about at the end).
So here is a primer on what I have learned about the process of deciphering the form of Australian harness racing.
1. What we see in North America is Australia’s daytime cards.
The east coast of Australia is 14 hours “ahead” of East Coast time, meaning that if their races are to start at 10 p.m. here, it’s already noon the next day Down Under. Thus, we see the daytime cards. If they were sending nighttime cards that started at say 7:30 p.m., they would be starting at 5:30 a.m. here, and with all due respects to followers of South African racing, that’s just not prime time for western hemisphere bettors.
2. The schedule of races for the entire country, and all kinds of handicapping information, is available at www.harness.org.au.
This site is the equivalent of the USTA and Standardbred Canada main sites. You click on “Racing” then “Form Guides,” their term for what we would call program pages, and then click on the track you’re interested in. You can print out the program pages/Form Guides for the card (they call a day of racing a “meeting”) or for certain races. We’ll explain how to read the Form Guide – the most important part of handicapping – later on.
There are also some tip sheets, with good analysis, available. Click on “Punting,” then “Punter’s Corner,” and you can take your pick. The one I have found most useful is “iForm,” if it is available at your track – it puts out a morning line (the Form Guide does not), does some race analysis, and then gives an informed opinion as to where the horse is likely to be placed during the early part of the race. “Speed Maps,” which appears to be for Queensland racing, gives the likely position of the horses “at the bell” (a signal that there is one circuit of the track to go).
Under the “Racing” section, a click on the “State Premierships” will give you the leading trainers and drivers at both the city meets and the “country meets.” Which of the six Australian “states” the track you’re following is located comes right after its listing on “Form Guides.” (You’ll learn a little Australian geography, too.)
3. Things that are totally different in the operations of an Australian track.
Upon looking at the “Form Guides,” you’ll see very few horses are racing back at the track at which they last competed. Many tracks race only once or twice a week (part of the reason is that some also have courses for runners, and a few even for dog tracks!) It can be noted here that it’s not unusual to see three foes from “Track A” last time out matched together again at “Track B” in their next start.
The biggest obvious difference in the actual contests is that races Down Under are carded at many distances. The distance of both the race is printed at the top of every race. For equivalency, 1609 meters is one mile, and 2000 meters is almost 1¼ miles, etc. Sometimes you’ll see “1 1/8 miles,” which is about 1800 meters (an 1/8 of a mile being about 200 meters).
The circumference of the track is obviously important to the racing, and is also listed at the top of the page. Tabcorp Park Menangle is the biggest track both figuratively and literally at 1400 meters (7/8 of a mile). Most tracks are usually half-milers (800m) or five-eighths milers (1000m), although don’t be surprised if you see a variance of 50m plus or minus from those standard sizes. Some tracks have “passing lanes” (“sprint lanes”) and some don’t – that fact is noted at the top of the Form.
We should talk about the starting of the races. Most are “mobile start,” using a starting gate, noted as (MS). There are also “standing starts” (SS), usually in races involving trotters and races where horses are actually handicapped distance at the start (10m-20m-30m)! There are the expected rambunctious horses, but most of the horses are used to these “tape starts,” and don’t throw a horse out because he has to overcome a 30-meter disadvantage – he’s starting behind because it’s a handicap, and he is often the most accomplished horse in the field.
Menangle Park goes 10-wide, but many of the other tracks go 6- or 7-wide – this information is at the top of the Form Guide. Since Aussie races often have 9 and 10 horses, it’s not uncommon to see six on the gate and three or four trailing! Horses on the gate carry the designation “Fr1” (front) out to “Fr7” if they go that wide, and “trailers” will show where they are in their tier – if you have an “Sr1” on a 7-wide track, it means the horses started behind the rail horse (what Western Fair would call PP8).
And since you won’t learn the colors of most drivers that quickly (they are listed in the “Form Guide,” in the unusual place of the third line on the left, while the driver is listed on the fourth line on the right), you’d be wise to have the colors of the saddle pads written nearby to help you follow the horses.
They have a uniform set of harness saddle pad colors – but they’re not the North American pattern:
1 – red with white number
2 – black and white stripe with red number – the two red numbers (on 2 and 6) are hard to read
3 – white with black number
4 – blue with white number
5 – yellow with black number
6 – green with red number
7 – black with white number
8 – pink with black number
9 – light blue with black number
10 – blue/white/red with black number, like Neapolitan ice cream with blueberry instead of chocolate
4. The races will be about half an hour apart at a given track, and if two tracks are racing, they’ll be on the same Sky Sports channel.
Occasionally you’ll even get thoroughbred racing thrown in.
5. Classification system.
There will be maiden races, stakes preliminaries and finals and the like, but most of the races are written for horses who fit under a parameter established by the Australian authorities. The race on top of the stack next to my computer showed that that event was for horses rated between “50 to 58.” (How they get to that figure is outside the scope of the story.) Sometimes it may say “up to 47,” or the like.
Purses don’t vary much within the structure of a given track, but they will vary from track to track. Class shifts are sometimes difficult to note; the tip sheets often can provide help there.
6. How the times of the races are reported.
There is a MAJOR difference between what you will see as the times posted during and after a race, and how they are recorded in the Form Guide. It’s important to know the difference – although one can be inferred from the other.
During a race, the first “split” (fractional) time will be for whatever distance is covered until the field reaches the point of a race where a mile (1600m really) is left; then the quarters for each succeeding 400m are reported. In a 2000 meter race, you might see fractions of 33.0-31.0-32.5-30.8-30.0 (timing is done in TENTHS). If it is a face at 2500 meters, the first fraction, for a half-mile plus a sixteenth, could read 69.7 for the 900 meters, and then “normal” fractions would be posted.
In the “Form Guide,” the times listed are the mile rate (the time divided by the distance, for average, then multiplied by the mile distance) of the contest, what the last half/800m was officially covered in, and then the same four “back fractions” as shown on TV. The horse’s individual clocking is not shown, except by implication when he wins the race (but they do show how many meters a horse was beaten, with three meters being a little more than a length, which “equals” 1/5 U.S. or 2/10 Aust.). Oh, and you’ll see the expression “shfhd,” which is “short half head,” what we would call a nose.
7. How to read the “Form Guide”.
If you want to be a handicapper, you plunge into the Australian program. Here’s some help so you understand what you might see:
• THE TOP LINE IS THE OLDEST OF THE HORSE’S LAST FIVE RACES. The most recent is the last line – unless the horse hasn’t won within his last five starts, in which case the last line (the sixth) will be the line of his last victory. (I recently saw a race where the bottom line was from November 2016 – and the horse won!)
• The Australian racing season does not follow the calendar – it starts on Sept. 1 and goes through Aug. 31. The long strings of numbers under the horse’s breeding, breeder, and owners refer to the horse’s finishes in the current racing season on the right, and the year before to the left of them. An “s” indicates that a horse has been “spelled,” or laid off.
• Underneath are career starts-firsts-seconds-thirds, lifetime earnings, best mile rate, summary of this year’s and last year’s record, win and “place” percentage (in the Form, “place” includes 1-2-3s; in betting, it can mean something different), racing record with mobile gate, over the track, at this approximate distance (along with best mile rate at “the distance”).
• On the actual raceline from left to right: in bold is the finish and the number of starters, track, date, distance, mobile or standing start, post position (read again about “Fr” and “Sr” near the end of section 3), track condition, purse and race condition (like in No.Am., sometimes instead of the type of race the racename is used – grrrrrrrrrrr…), how many meters behind the horse finished. The odds of the horse are expressed in return to win for a unit of $1; thus “$2.30 fav” would mean that the horse was the 6-5 favorite the way “we talk”. Then the first and second horses in the race are listed unless “our horse” was 1-2, and then it lists the third, with the fractions of the race AS EXPRESSED IN THE “FORM GUIDE” (see above for distinction).
Lastly comes a comment about the horse’s performance, which uses a lot of jargon – the most common: “1 out – 1 back” being what we would call second-over, one off the rail and one behind the lead horse in that tier, the racecallers often shortening it to “1 and 1”;“swabbed” = tested; “pegs” = pylons = the inside.
8. Prior races.
Charts of previous races, mostly with videos, are available through “Racing” / “Results,” and then going to the meeting for which you are looking. This can supplement your handicapping. At the end of the charts is a section called “Stewards’ Comments,” which we strongly advise not to try to figure out at risk of hurting your brain – translating these is like taking an upper-division course in graduate school. I’m not even going to tell you where the equivalencies of the almost 500 abbreviations used can be found. Watch the replay – you’ll save time and be better off, unless you’re switching to full-time Australian harness playing, in which case the detailed comments can be valuable.
9. How to handicap Australian harness racing.
Well, I’ve been trying to handicap North American harness racing for 52 years now, and I’m still constantly learning new and better techniques in trying to figure things out. You think I have that much insight into Australian racing? Besides, the real fun of handicapping is that you do it yourself. No amount of green at the end of the race is better than the thought that “YES! I figured all of that out on my own!” (Some people may not agree with me.)
The basic principles you know about “our racing” and the successful handicapping (judgment of probability) remain the same in Down Under racing, with the distance factor added in – and the positions/lengths behind at the calls, a crucial part of my handicapping style, not available readily.
But to make three generalities, I’d say:
a) The closers look to have a bit better chance Down Under than they do in No.Am. If you’re not in the first three at the half here, often you have little shot; in Australia, perhaps because of the added distance, perhaps horses make what look to us to be early three-wide moves to give cover, and because horses tend to do better on the turns coming from behind. It will be tougher to figure out who will be where (see the tip sheets as mentioned), but don’t count yourself out of it because you’re not close approaching the last turn. And this is despite last halves and quarters often being quite quick, relatively speaking.
b) Like thoroughbreds, and unlike harness racing over here, distance switches must be taken into account.A horse who can post good finishes at a mile or 1750m may have trouble “stretching out” to a 2000+m event. Also, closers in longer races may be helped by getting away from an 800m (half-mile) track; some of the rough-gaited ones will be hampered less on the bends, and have a longer straightaway over which to rally.
c) Bet the driver in the short-sleeved colors.I was watching the warmups at one non-city meeting, and many of the drivers seemed to have the Eisenhower-like colors on top and white pants, all long-sleeved as if they might be year-round colors. Then I saw one driver go by with a streamlined one-piece driving colors suit, like most have over here – and he had short sleeves on, something no one else sported. I looked at the form and saw that the driver was Chris Alford – and I remembered he had once competed in the World Driving Championship. So my “inspection handicapping” had my eye drawn to a driver, not a horse, and it seemed Alford’s horse, not out of it on the form, had a good chance,
Here’s a link to the race (it’s race 2, scroll down).
(Later did I find out that Alford has 7,000 career wins; if you’re looking him up, the local drivers’ standings would have shown him to be the leading sulky-sitter on his circuit).
10. How to bet Australian harness racing.
Betting, as always, is your reckoning of which horse(s) offer the best value in odds relative to the chances you evaluate them to have in this particular race. That’s a universal. It’s also why I tend to prefer bets like win and exacta, where they post the probable payoffs, allowing for recognition of “overlays.” You may prefer more exotic bets, but maybe caution might be a bit better upon dipping your toes into the Australian betting pool – at least to start.
One important thing to understand is the different meanings of the word “place” in betting Down Under (and in most parts of the world). “Place” could refer a 1-2 finish if 8 horses or less and 1-2-3 if 9 or more; there is no “show” betting in much of the world. My system offers win-place-show as North Americans would understand it.
One final thing to note is that you are likely to hear or see three sets of odds – again, only the one going through your betting system directly affect your pocketbook, although the other two could provide you with useful information. Commentators (announcers) will refer to the “fixed-line favorite,” which refers to the chalk in the early line guaranteeing you odds, and they will frequently refer to the tote favorite, which is through the Australian TAB system, not necessarily the odds your provider is quoting.
So now you know some of the basics of Australian harness racing, and how its program is to be read to help with your handicapping. You can, of course, refer to any of the other tools mentioned in here, but there is NOTHING like figuring out your own likely winner. Betting is relative to what odds are being offered, so other than the terminology, you are ready to go there (according to your bankroll).
Have a good look at the Australian harness races – but of course good luck to getting back our own North American harness season in reasonably good order in a reasonable amount of time.