Human intervention needed to produce morning line for Yonkers stakes

by Brett Sturman

In a trend that began a few years ago, most harness tracks today employ a computerized process for generating their programmed morning line odds. For all the flaws of the system, of which there are many, tracks have seemingly landed on the opinion that it’s more effective to have the programmed odds auto-generated rather than utilize the widely lost art of a human being setting the lines.

Despite the silliness of it, the disparities between the auto-generated odds and actual odds come post time have become an accepted part of odds making. And while it’s not worth the effort to point out every time anomalies in the odds occur, there should be a better process in place for signature races in the sport.

I first suggested that very thought in a Tweet last month in races where morning lines were all over the place on the biggest day of the year at Harrah’s Philadelphia. And now, turning to Yonkers for two of the track’s premier races that are set to take place tonight (June 30), it’s time to address this issue more directly.

Beginning with the $250,000 Messenger Stakes, I would characterize the morning line odds for the race not even as poor, but completely nonsensical. I’ll dive into each horse’s specifics in a moment, but the morning line for the favorite has been set at odds of 9-2; something rarely seen and might be unprecedented in harness racing. Maybe it’s the additional two horses making the Messenger a rare 10-horse field at Yonkers at an additional sixteenth of a mile that has sent the automated lines further into haywire than usual, but rest assured that no matter who wins the race, the final odds for the Messenger will have little reflection as to what the starting odds are.

The Yonkers Trot isn’t much better.

This isn’t just a Yonkers thing, but more attention is drawn to that track because of the high quality of horses that race there. In the Borgata Pacing Series and Blue Chip Matchmaker finals card at the end of April, similar situations were seen. In the $100,000 Borgata consolation that night, Hemsworth N was listed at a 10-1 morning line and went off at amazingly — but not at all surprisingly — low odds of 3-5. In the Blue Chip Matchmaker final, Doug’s Babe A went off as the odds-on 4-5 favorite off a 5-1 morning line.

It’s one thing for the odds to be off this much at some track on a random Tuesday when the win pool is $3,000, but it’s another to see it for supposed Triple Crown races. What it says to me is that the track doesn’t have much regard for their wagering product. Which then leads to the next question, if the track doesn’t care, why should I care enough to bet on it?

Fortunately, the solution is simple. At the very least for the major races, have a human being set the odds. It would take a matter of minutes for someone at the track to establish more reasonable odds for the bigger races. Even disregarding odds and not even setting a morning line altogether would be a better alternative to putting out odds that make zero sense. Either have some pride or don’t do it at all.

One thing that would put an end to the automated odds in a heartbeat would be if they were used as the basis for fixed odds wagering. If the track was accountable for the odds put forth and exposed themselves to risk by allowing Seven Colors to be odds of 6-1 in the Messenger or Kierkegaard K in the Yonkers Trot at 5-1, you can be sure there’d be a change in a hurry. But like they say, there’s no incentive to change if there’s no consequence for being wrong.

In the Messenger Stakes, Seven Colors looks like the biggest misfire in the automated odds. So much so that I would genuinely love to know what criteria in the algorithm led the computer to establish those odds for him. We’re dealing with top stakes connections in trainer Brian Brown and driver Tim Tetrick, a hugely advantageous post position 2, with his two prior races being a near-record 1:48.1 win over Pennsylvania Sires Stakes foes at Harrah’s Philadelphia, followed by a 1:48.3 mile where he went first over in his North America Cup elimination against next-out and eventual winner It’s My Show, just missing that final by a half-length or so. Anything can happen in the Messenger and it’s not to say that Seven Colors is a cinch to win, but one thing for sure is that he will not be 6-1 come race time.

The role of programmed favorite in the Messenger will go to Captain Batboy at odds of 9-2. What’s interesting here is that a case could certainly be made for him. He’s not nearly as accomplished as some others here, but he did recently win his qualifier in 1:49.3 over older pacing star Lochinvar Art. With that said, his starting slot in post 5 is just so-so, and again, it might be interesting to know what the algorithm sees that would make him a favorite over Seven Colors, or even Annapolis Hanover for that matter who is also stakes-tested and has drawn the coveted rail position.

Even stranger in the race is a horse named American Fling, who at 5-1 is the second favorite. He came off a second in a New York Sire Stakes race and prior to that was third in an overnight at The Meadows. The funny thing is that while he is 5-1, Thunder Hunter Joe is 9-1. These two horses raced against each other last out at Vernon where despite having a worse post, 5, Thunder Hunter Joe was the odds-on favorite that race and accordingly, defeated second choice in that race American Fling who started from the rail. None of it makes sense.

In the $300,000 Yonkers Trot, Kierkegaard K is the fifth-best horse in the morning line and will likely go off as the favorite. The Chapter Seven colt has been untouchable this year in three starts and is on many lists as one of the top Hambletonian contenders at this juncture. His 1:50.3 win two back at Vernon is easily the fastest mark of anyone else in this race. Last week in his elimination, albeit with a massive post advantage on rival Ari Ferrari J, Kierkegaard K was odds of 2-5 while the former was 3-1. In the Yonkers Trot final, Kierkegaard K again has the post advantage, though has been made odds of just 5-1 while Ari Ferrari J has been made the 5-2 favorite out of post 5.

There’s a few other nice 3-year-old trotters in here that include: fellow elimination winner Up Your Deo who was also third two back in the New Jersey Sires Stakes Final and is a Svanstedt stablemate to Kierkegaard K; Yonkers Trot elimination runner-up Chapercraz as well as Crown who goes for Melander and Sears. But should every one of them be higher regarded than Kierkegaard K?

Determining who will actually end up winning these races is far more difficult than simply establishing morning lines that are reflective of which horses that bettors will gravitate towards. For the amount of little effort it takes to do in the premier races, it’s something that tracks should be getting right.