Harness Handicapping: Should You Play That Longshot?

June 26th, 2013

Who doesn't love to play a longshot that wins at 10-1? I know I do. Those are the ones you tell your friends about. The ones you don't tell your friends about are the many longshots that you backed and then watched as they ambled along at the back of the pack. Or, worse, the ones that took the lead as if they were shot from guns, only to fade and be passed by most of the other horses right before the wire. That's enough to put you off longshots forever.

So, how do you tell a good longshot bet from a bad one? First of all, it might be a good idea if we separated the morning line longshots from the crowd's longshots. Remember that the track handicapper, who sets the Morning Line odds, isn't giving you his or her idea of what the odds should be. The Morning Line is what the track handicapper thinks that the PUBLIC will be betting on the horses.

There's a difference. If the track handicapper also publishes a tip sheet or posts his odds online or somewhere else, they may be totally different from what he thinks the Morning Line will be. One is crowd driven and one is based on the track handicapper's handicapping.

I evaluate Morning Line longshots a little differently from horses that the crowd makes longshots. For one thing, I have more time, since the Morning Line is out as soon as the programs are out. When I first go over the races, I don't even look at the odds as I evaluate each horse. I only look at what the horse has done, asking myself one question: Can this horse do what's being asked of it in this race?

What I really like to see is a horse that has already done what it will have to do to win this race. I look at the class and speed rating to see which horses have been competitive at those levels. If a favorite has never competed or won at the level it's running in today, it won't be MY favorite. Not unless it has something outstanding like a 10 length win or a much faster time than any of the other horses in its last race. Even then, I don't back horses at less than even odds, unless they've already done what they're expected to do today.

If I see a longshot that has proven that it can win at this level, against similar horses, I'll try to figure out WHY it's a longshot in this race. If I can't find a good reason, I'll back it, no matter what the odds are. I look at the driver to see if they've won with it before. I look at the trainer to see if he or she does well at whatever the situation is that makes the crowd or the ML setter think that it should be at long odds.

Is it coming back from a layoff? If so, does the trainer have a good percentage for that angle? Is it in a bad post position? If so, can it overcome it with early speed or hard closing? Has it just had bad racing luck for two or three races, and is that what's turned people off it? I see that all the time.

Standardbreds are pretty consistent, but they still have times when things just don't work out. Bad racing luck can make even the best horse look bad if you only look at its last two or three races. Maybe it was wormed. Maybe it had a change of feed or a bout of colic or something else that horses are prone too. Did it change stables and get sulky about it? If so, it may be settled in now and ready to get serious about racing again.

So, when shouldn't you play a longshot? My main criteria is when it's never done what it will have to do to win this race. If it's been running with Class Ratings of 72 and it's suddenly in a CR 78 race, a level its never raced at before, it should be a longshot and I wouldn't play it if you paid me to. If it broke in its last race, was scratched lame or sick and had some bad races before that, I'd wait until I was sure it was sound before I backed it.

If a horse is in an outside post in a pace and has little early speed and/or closing ability, it deserves to be a longshot. If it has a driver or trainer with abysmal win percentages, think twice before you play it. If it hasn't won in 34 races, like one of the horses that runs weekly at a local track, don't think that "it's due", like someone I know who always plays it to win. The horse is into him for $68 and usually goes off at odds of around 13-1, so he's not going to get his money back even if it does win.

The thing that you have to remember if you play longshots is that they only come in once in a while. If you pick the most likely longshots though, you can make money with them. It doesn't take too many $22 winners to make up for missing a few. I've had bombs that paid over a hundred dollars, but those are few and far between.

If you want the excitement of playing longshots without risking too much money, keep this in mind. On any harness program, you'll be lucky to find two longshots that win. Once in a while there will be a card that seems to be almost all longshots, but that's not the norm. What this means is that you have to find the one or two longshots on the program that have something going for them.

Eliminate the horses that can't win because they lack class or speed. Throw out the ones that have drivers and trainers with very low win percentages, unless they've won with this horse before. Put a line through horses that broke or were scratched lame in their last races. Ditto for horses that have never posted a time that is equal to the par time for this race, or that show times that are much slower than any other horse in the race.

If you have any longshots left after this, they might be good bets. Evaluate them to see which ones have something - post position, good driver or trainer, especially if it's a change - that makes them a better bet than they look at first glance. Find a horse that showed some evidence of life in its last race. A good final quarter after being parked out or a finish within a couple lengths of the winner, even if it didn't hit the board. In harness racing, there's sometimes such a scrimmage at the end of the race that a horse can be 7th and still finish close to the winner.

Play them to win and place, because many times, longshots place. I don't play them to show but you might want to if they're at really long odds. I sometimes play them in exactas with the favorite and another horse that I like. I've hit some nice exactas that way, especially when the favorite finishes second with the longshot first.

Longshots can pay off, if you know how to play them. If you play too many of them though, you'll run through your bankroll before you run out of races on the program. Be selective. Do your homework and your handicapping. Don't expect miracles from horses that haven't done much in the past. But do be aware of horses that are improving and might do a little better than the crowd or the Morning Line predicts that they will.