Experts weigh in on how they plan to handicap cards after a long layoff

Experts weigh in on how they plan to handicap cards after a long layoff

May 3, 2020

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by Garnet Barnsdale

It seems as though there is now a glimmer of hope that we could see some harness racing in the next couple of months and hopefully there will be several jurisdictions buzzing with action.

Action-starved bettors will be faced with some unusual handicapping puzzles, however, trying to pick winners from entire fields full of horses racing of layoffs of several months.

How do we solve those puzzles and how can we find value? I surveyed many of the industry’s handicapping experts for some ideas that hopefully will be useful to your handicapping. Here are the three questions that they were asked:

1. What resources would you recommend using to prepare handicappers for these races? Is there any way to gain an edge?

2. Do you think you will bet some of these races right out of the blocks? Why or why not?

3. How can a bettor find value in races of these types?

Here’s what the experts had to say:

Derick Giwner – DRF Harness editor

“I would say the situation of long layoffs without clean lines does occur, just not regularly. Saratoga in Upstate New York ends its season in mid-December and starts up in February and I don’t believe horses are forced to qualify. But, to the question at hand, I would fall back on my knowledge of the horse and ask a few questions. Does the horse typically race well over this track? Does the horse race consistently (30 to 40 starts a year) or more infrequently (15 to 25 starts) with success? A horse that typically has 20 starts a year and wins five to seven races, might be one more apt to fire fresh. Finally, I’ll be looking for barns that typically fire off layoffs. There is no list to follow. You just have to have a feel for it.

“If we are being honest, every handicapper is chomping at the bit waiting for a return of racing. We’ll all be playing, perhaps just picking our spots a bit more carefully.

“Everyone is coming in blind when it comes to these races and let’s be honest, most people are not going to put in the work to succeed. If horses are forced to qualify, watch each qualifier closely. If not, take a closer look at each horse in the post parade and watch them warm up. Dig deeper into the past performance lines and “class” than in the past. There will be more opportunity during these first couple of weeks than at any other time if you put the work in.”

Michael Carter – Handicapper for Ontario Racing’s Bettors Corner

“Look deeper than past performance lines and find out what the horse has done off a layoff before. The TrackMaster 12-line programs are really good for this.

“Yes, I will be betting. Some horses thrive off of a layoff and you may be able to catch some value.

“Read deeper than the six lines that you see on the program, do the homework and find out what the horse has done previously off a layoff. The time will pay off in the future.”

Melissa Keith – Bettors Corner handicapper

“I will be looking at programs from early in the previous meet for each returning track I play, noting the trainers and owners whose horses tend to be ready right away. Watching qualifiers and baby races is also a tool I will use, because these are not always charted or reported in much detail, but they can reveal valuable information about horses: gait, attitude, liking for a particular size track or track condition or style of racing or driver. Being observant is always an edge.

“Absolutely I will be betting, in part as a show of support for the tracks in question. I would prefer to play tracks where the original opening date for the meet happens to already correspond with that state or province loosening limits on sporting events/public gatherings. Those tracks will be closer to ‘business as usual,’ with horses ready to race and hopefully good-sized fields. Looking at tracks forced to pause at the height of their winter season will be different when they resume. One consideration will be the absence of the trainers indicted in March, which could create more wide-open races/fewer short-priced winners at the tracks where they dominated.

“For me, it goes back to watching qualifiers, then watching the board and being attentive to which owners/trainers typically send out horses who are ready to win early in the season. That might change slightly this year, with stakes programs up in the air, so less incentive to put 2- and 3-year-olds through demanding trips for minimal gain.”

Dave Brower – Meadowlands handicapper and morning line maker

“It’s pretty hard to know what trainers have been keeping their horses ‘in full training.’ That is a darn good question.

“I will reach out to some of them for ‘trainer comments’ that we list in the official program. I have a few that get back to me all the time. I have many that don’t respond at all. So, that will be tough.

“As for me, I will probably play sporadically, IF I think my horse is in the right spot. I will not play every race, but maybe just a few. I will also take very good notes, so I can properly handicap going forward. It won’t be easy, but it will have to be done.”

Greg Reinhart – DRF Harness public handicapper

“In my opinion, there is absolutely no way to bet on any race with any confidence if the various harness racing jurisdictions don’t require an updated line in a qualifier before we return to pari-mutuel contests. As a bettor, how am I supposed to know what the horse has been up to, if it has been able to stay sound, or has maintained its form since March when we stopped racing? Without that information, speaking strictly for myself, I would have to sit it out.”

Ryan Willis – Woodbine Mohawk Park handicapper/bettor

“My plan is to take it very easy for the first few weeks when racing does resume. I say ‘plan’ because I really am craving action. I’m thinking you should likely play horses sent out by top conditioners. I know Carmen Auciello has been quoted as saying he has been training them all up pretty good once a week and treating it as a race. I think that’s a barn I’m going to want to play first back. I think the value is going to be in horses that should be really short prices and maybe people are scared to back an odds on type of horse so you end up getting a nicer price. But who really knows and maybe you do get a price you think is really fair and the horse races like he hasn’t seen a harness in over a month.

“I don’t think on the resource front you can do much right away. I’ll be focusing on making notes and watching who is bringing them in ready to race. If big trainers start having them ready, or the opposite, you might be tempted to hop on board or start completely tossing horses trained by certain connections. And if it does happen that way you will probably get rewarded the next week going back to horses that didn’t race up to their potential the first start off the shelf.”

Monique Vag – Woodbine Mohawk Park on-air host and handicapper

“Resources like TrackIt will have a horse’s entire racing career easily accessible. By accessing the website you’ll be able to see if a hiatus was ever something this particular horse endured, and it could provide a good starting point to see how the time off could potentially affect.

“Social media is also a great resource to see what a trainer/owner is saying (if anything) about how their horse is training. Keep your eyes out for those tidbits of info! Anything that can help you make a better informed decision is always useful.

“It is tough to answer if there is any edge because we are entering uncharted territory with a much lengthier than usual layoff for many.
“I’ll likely be handicapping the same way, betting less, though. I’m sure for some horses the time off will be a disadvantage, but I’m not convinced that’s something you can really quantify — if it is, prove me wrong.

“I think more than anything the battle internally for me for the first little while back is going to become a question of: what type of a price am I willing to accept given the amount of uncertainty.

“Is there any trend that develops right away (first couple of race cards) that I can capitalize on before the public becomes privy to it and handicappers catch on? Hopefully so.”

Hopefully sooner rather than later we are all happily hunting for winners at our local tracks and — even better — cheering them on from the stands while enjoying our favorite beverages. Stay safe everyone!

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