All you need to know about handicapping harness horses and making money betting on them by recognizing when you have stumbled upon the equivalent of sperm whale poop.
by David Mattia
Let’s begin the final part of this epic with a story about a cheap horse that I have told a billion times. I’ll make this quick – I promise.
Around the same time as the Watchit Skipper thing, I had a tiny horse named Texas Bound. He was a Maine-bred pacer who wanted to be a trotter, but he didn’t cover any ground on that gait. He was racing in $4,000 claimers at Freehold, and in every start, he was a good starter but a dull finisher. He would always finish fifth or sixth, even when he got a perfect trip. I had him checked for everything but there was nothing.
Although he scoped clean and had good blood, I assumed it had to be his breathing. Along the way, I had added a throat can and a Z-bit to get him more air. I even added blinkers to give him more pep, but it all meant nothing. In other words, I did what any trainer would do.
I was almost content with the conclusion that he was just a slow and little horse who should have stayed in Maine, but again, my youthful curiosity couldn’t accept that. He certainly wasn’t lame, and he’d been race-timed a few times in 1:56 at the Meadowlands, and that was in 1988 time, so just how slow could he be?
At the time, I was stabled at a farm in New Jersey called Meadow Run. The farm manager happened to be the immortal Harry Harvey. Somehow, I got up the nerve to ask Harry about Texas Bound. To my amazement, he said he would take him a trip. Okay, that was weird.
When he came back from a slow mile, he said that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the horse. Then he asked me about my training schedule. I told Harry that because the horse was so little, I trained him very lightly. Harry shook his head disapprovingly. He told me that little horses do not know that they are little. He told me emphatically to work Texas Bound like a big horse and to feed him like a big horse. Then, he took him back onto the track and drilled him another mile in about 2:10 and came home as fast as he could.
The following morning, Texas Bound, who I assumed would have died in his sleep after training so hard, was bouncing around on his toes. Lucky for me that he was so small because I could barely walk him to the paddock without getting myself killed. That little dust mite had suddenly morphed into a spitfire piece of ambergris.
Instead of his usual three miles, I jogged him five miles a day for the three days leading up to his next race and then I brought him, snorting, hollering, and dancing, to Freehold where he’d drawn inside against a tough bunch of $4,000 claimers. I realize that “tough $4,000 claimers” sounds like an oxymoron, but it was truly an unusual assembly of old, classy, and last-legs geldings – the kind who could still throw in a nice race every now and then.
With a 15-1 morning line, the program’s comment was something like, “…always hangs. No pace in last ten starts. No shot with this bunch. Cannot recommend.”
In his equipment bag, I packed only a harness, hobbles, and an open bridle with a snaffle bit and a chin strap. Do you sense my foreshadowing here?
Instead of my usual self-sufficient grind, I hired a groom to paddock him so I could go to the grandstand and make a bet. I remember betting $40 to win and nothing else. A penny more would have gone against my better judgement.
Why wasn’t anyone looking at the handwritten equipment board which read: “Minus throat can. Minus Z-bit. Minus hood, Add chin strap.” Again, albeit in a tacit way, the equipment board was shaking the betting public by the shoulders, begging them to look. Lucky for me, the board went as unnoticed as the NO SMOKING sign.
The gate sprung. His driver, my late friend Steve Oliwa, could not hold him, and he ran off in 2:00 and paid $106.00. Of course, I made a few thousand dollars betting him to win, but no one in the grandstand did – least of all the handicapper who wrote the program comments. But don’t blame him, blame Harry Harvey. He got involved in the private life of Texas Bound and turned things around. How could any racing analyst have known about that?
From then on, Texas Bound rarely lost at that level but I never bet on him again. He was just another name in the program – prone to the same ups and downs as just about every racehorse in the world. Sometimes he could go with the $6,000 claimers, but it was easier to keep him where he was because that was his speed, so to speak. In other words, he went from a cheap horse who never won, to a cheap horse who won a lot. Thank you, Harry Harvey.
WHY I DON’T TRUST PROGRAMS
Continuing our tour of why I don’t trust programs and I am not a fan of handicapping; our next stop is at a training farm in northern New Jersey where I was handed the job of training a nice bunch of horses. The best horse, and you could tell just by looking at him, was a stunning black colt named L Adiaussie. This would have been in 1992 or thereabouts.
A son of Armbro Aussie, the glossy 3-year-old, was highly praised by the man who broke him. Despite being spoiled to pieces by his owner and breeder who adored him, this horse was an apt pupil, His most recent racing lines, however, didn’t seem to live up to his looks and demeanor. It took about two days to wonder why this horse was still a stud, but I knew enough to dare not suggest it. He was so darned sexy that even Bob Barker wouldn’t have neutered him.
When I saw his equipment card – you guessed it – he came with an outside burr headpole and Murphy blind.
Initially, because I was jaded by the equipment and his annoying habit of leaning on the left line, I simply assumed that he either wasn’t as good as he looked or that he was simply a horse who raced well on the left line. That happens, right? However, the outside burr on the equipment card drove me to madness. I could not let that rest. It didn’t sit with me. I’d already walked through the Watchit Skipper trenches.
In his first start for me, with Gary Mosher in the bike, L Adiaussie raced okay, but according to Gary, he was grabbing that left line throughout the mile, and although he was a very agile athlete who wanted to leave the gate, he couldn’t because, at high speed, he was taking one step sideways for every two steps he took forward. Still, he was getting checks while racing against good colts. As a matter of fact, before I ever saw this horse, and he was in the capable hands of another trainer, he had won a leg of the Trendsetter Series at The Meadowlands. What would he do now, older, and stronger if he could pace straight in the shafts? It was maddening – but only for a short while.
He was vetted from head to toe and had all his dental work done. Why was he locked on this line? Trust me when I say that this horse wanted for nothing from birth. He was the Little Lord Fauntleroy of the farm. He got the best of everything, and the trainer who had him before me was very capable. His veterinarian Steve Bokman, was, and still is, one of the best in the world. Trust me, I didn’t do anything ingenious. I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I was the beach bum who again stumbled upon a chunk of ambergris.
Before the great reveal of what was causing his issues with the left line, my greatest fear was that he had a thing that I call “U Turn Syndrome.” Nobody believes me when I say that this is a real thing, but trust me, it’s a thing. It happens when you have a horse with a bad attitude who locks on the left line because he wants to turn around in the mile and go back to the barn. In my experience, horses who do this are smart like a dog. You’ve got to worry about a horse who has dog smarts. That can only lead to trouble. You want a smart horse to be smart but only as smart as a horse and nothing more than that. To my chagrin L Adiaussie was the Lassie of horses.
At the time, I was training along with Michael Russo who had a few of his own horses there, and although we were both quite young, his brilliance at figuring things out — his endless dedication and the exactitude he attaches to his horsemanship – had already sprouted.
Mike noted that L Adiaussie was grabbing the left line both in the straights and in the turns — and even while jogging. Of course, I had noted this as well, but with about 10 or so horses needing me, my head was exploding with too much information. Again, this colt had won a leg of the Trendsetter series at the Meadowlands. He had shown great promise less than a year before. How off could he be?
Remember when I told you how Watchit Skipper would come off the left line in the turns? This wasn’t the case with L Adiaussie. He was always on the left line, even while he was walking. He didn’t have any soreness in his jack cords or anything close to his legs or feet. He had soreness in his mouth. How had this gone unnoticed? It went unnoticed by his previous connections because it had yet to become obvious and they were simply content to put a burr headpole on the right side.
One day, Mike noticed that the horse had putrid breath. I never knew a horse who had minty fresh breath, but this was sewage. A quick look inside revealed that pus was leaking out from the floor of his mouth. Although it sprouted overnight, this horse had a long-festering abscess beneath his tongue. It wasn’t until it erupted that anyone could see it. This was no one’s fault. No vet or dentist or trainer had missed it because it wasn’t visibly there yet.
Still, I would never have continued with this horse had I been the person training him from the get-go. I would have never slapped on a headpole or steering bar and gone on with him. I don’t have the patience. Keep in mind that this stud horse raced well until he was 14, and although he earned over a quarter million dollars and was always handled by talented trainers throughout his entire career, I rank him as a shocking underachiever. True, he had the misfortune of racing at a time when purses were exceptionally low, but in my heart of hearts I think his early starts with that mouth pain put a permanent damper on him.
Anyway, back to the story of the private life of L Adiaussie.
We immediately started to fix his mouth problem. Instead of jogging him in a bridle, we towed him. Each day we flushed his mouth with endless amounts of warm salt water and some other purple stuff that I can’t remember the name of. He was also treated with antibiotics. By the 10th day, his mouth was healed. I crossed my fingers and hitched him to the cart. It was incredible. He was a different horse. It was night and day. Note again that this colt was old-school flashy and proud. He looked like pure class, and now, for the first time, or at least since I got him, it truly showed on the track.
The next day I trained him on the half-mile farm track with the intention of keeping up with the saltwater rinses and racing him the following week.
Straight as a rocket ship, he toured the oval in a death-grip 1:57. That must have been the track record because this farm used to play host to New Jersey Sire Stakes and Fair Races and it had official stats. I was told that the track record was 1:59, set by Genghis Khan years before. I might need a fact check on that one, but I think it’s accurate.
For his next start at Yonkers, with a perfectly new mouth, he drew post eight and I was incredibly lucky to again snag Gary Mosher as his driver. The field was a tough one too, but I knew, especially after his warmup, that L Adiaussie couldn’t lose, even if he were struck by lightning at the half, and again at the top of the stretch. Now, try saying that to a top driver who has drawn post eight with a longshot who shows racing below par for the past few months. Sounds embarrassing, right?
I think he was 20-1 on the morning line, and in the pre-race analysis, he was deservedly dismissed by the track analyst. As I recall, one of the sheets correctly referred to him as: “All show and no go.” Again, you can’t blame these guys. They knew nothing about the private life of L Adiaussie.
I took a deep breath, stood my ground, and told Gary to drive him like he was the best in the world, and to go to the top and never look back. I don’t know where I got the guts to say that. I would bet that Gary, to this very day, remembers the insanity of my instructions. I would also bet that most drivers can’t remember my instructions because I never give any.
Note that I told Gary this as he was headed up the ramp to the track. I didn’t get to him earlier, so there was no preamble or explanation from me earlier on.
I think this was the 10th or 11th race, and I had already bet my $100 before I brought the horse to the paddock. I remember trying to intentionally side-step a hardened gambler, a smartly dressed older guy from Greece who had a habit of standing near the paddock gate and asking: “My friend, my friend! How’s your horse? I love you. I love you. You’re beautiful. Good luck, my friend, my friend.” This time, however, my friend, my friend, asked me nothing. He just said hello. Even the Greek, for whom I was bearing a gift had he asked, had dismissed my horse.
What if he had asked me? What would I have said? I am not trying to be unkind, but this guy was a pest. He was a nice pest, but a pest, nonetheless. A lot of people reading this will know exactly who I am talking about.
Of course, my friend, my friend, hadn’t bothered to look at the equipment board and neither did the rest of Westchester County.
Anyway, back on the paddock ramp to the track, Gary Mosher looked at me both baffled and mildly amused. He said, “Why don’t we just try to work out a trip?” I said, “You don’t have to. He will literally destroy this field.” Then, as I fussed to check the horse up, I said, “Look, Gary! No headpole no steering bar, no Murphy.” I guess that set off a light bulb in Gary’s head. He nodded and went up the ramp to the tune of the bugler’s call.
I guess you already figured out the rest of this ambergris story. L Adiaussie left the gate faster than the Captain of the Costa Concordia left his sinking ship. He ran away in 1:55 from post eight and crushed the opposition. I don’t know exactly how much he paid, but it was in the $80 range and I was immediately called to the paddock judge. I told them the truth and that was the end of that.
I have far more to tell, but this is already turning into an epic. It’s not that I am such an ambitious storyteller, it’s more about the psychology of me and how I cannot tell a story unless I am 100 per cent certain that I am being understood.
Off the written page, I am noticeably quiet and far less talkative. I’m sure that some of my harness racing peeps will disagree.
What’s funny, if you look at my career on paper, and you know I don’t like stats written on paper, I don’t have a very impressive record. I can already hear people saying things like, “He hasn’t won so many races that he can make judgements like this or have so many stories to tell where he thinks he’s an expert.” This would be true except for the fact that many of my big years happened in the years before the ones that show now on the USTA website. I’ve been outdated.
Truthfully, I was basically a kid when I was racing at Yonkers with one horse in the opens and another horse in 3-year-old opens and another in the $75,000 claimer – all on the same night. Also, about 70 per cent of my career has since been devoted to breaking and training young horses for other people and for doing reclamation projects on expensive yearlings who were now 3 or 4 racing poorly or not at all.
I have had some super horses as juveniles – even more juvenile than me – but I never got to keep them. As soon as they qualified, they were sold or sent to other trainers. I loved that gig. The pressure disappeared as soon as the horse left my care. I can look back at almost every horse I ever had and tell a story because I don’t have to make excuses or praise myself. I know that sometimes it might sound like I praise myself, but I’m fully aware that I am a mediocrity, but I am a mediocrity who knows how to tell the interesting stories inherent to my mediocrity. Like Salieri in the film AMADEUS, I am the Patron Saint of mediocrities. That’s got to be worth something, right?
One last thing: Although I have limited on-air experience as a commentator, I’m accidentally good at it, how would my on-air input help anyone pick a horse when I need to watch the entire post parade and the subsequent score downs before deciding on a selection? You can’t give the public 30 seconds to make a wager, can you?
I can hear Ken Warkentin’s voice saying, “The countdown clock is ticking and we are still awaiting Dave Mattia’s selections for the race.”