Harness Handicapping With Patterns

September 25th, 2013













I have a friend who has a very simple handicapping technique for playing harness races. He just picks the horse with the highest SR, or speed rating, on the Trackmaster program. He says that, for half mile tracks especially, it works as well as anything. That may be so, but then, why does he lose more than he wins?

True, on half mile tracks, more than on mile or five-eighths tracks, speed is very important. But why do so many horses seem to come "from out of the blue" and win races, and beat the speedball horses in the race when they do it? You've seen it happen just as often as I have.

There will be a horse that's a lot faster than the other horses, and that has a couple of other things going for it. Maybe a good driver and/or trainer. Maybe a good post position. The crowd flings money at the horse and it goes off at odds of 4-5 and runs out of the money. Who wins? Why the horse in the 7 post, the one that has the worst speed figure of the bunch and that has never left first in the 6 races that you can see on the program under its name, but takes the lead from the gate this time.

These are the races that have some of us scratching our heads and others of us smelling a rat and thinking there's something fishy going on. But instead of rodents or sharks, what you probably should have looked for was a pattern. If you had searched for it in the lines of the horse that won, you might have cashed a ticket on it.

I think we all tend to be influenced by numbers and give them too much credit for telling us what's likely to happen in a race. I know that when I look at a race where a horse has a much lower speed figure or class figure than the other horses, I tend to dismiss that horse. I figure that it's just in there as a "place holder" or for conditioning.

After all, we know that some tracks struggle with filling races, because of a lack of horses. So, I figure, they needed another horse and found one that fits the conditions, but isn't really as good as the other horses. What I overlook, many times, is that the horse is working up to being better than it looks on paper on the program page. Either it has back speed or is just improving into better form than it's ever been in before.

Something all handicappers need to remember is this: Just because a horse hasn't done something before, doesn't mean that it won't do do it today. After all, every horse that gets better does things for the first time, as they climb up the class and purse ladder. From the time they're green two year olds, trotters and pacers get higher and higher numbers and faster times.

Sooner or later, with almost all improving horses, there comes a time when it wins a race where it looks like it's in way over its head and pays a good price. If you look for patterns that tell you that a horse is improving, you'll be able to catch bombs like this, that often pay double digits.

The first step to spotting them is getting out of the mindset that tells you that any horse in a race isn't in that race to win it. Assume that the trainers have placed every horse in the race to win, before you evaluate their chances. Then look to see if the horse has shown anything recently that would indicate that it's getting better or about to get better.

Don't invent excuses for the horse or see improvement that isn't really there, but look diligently for signs that the horse might be better than it looks. Good energy early and/or late. Being parked out and still expending good effort and determination in the stretch. A move into a slightly higher class in this race, which might indicate that the trainer thinks he saw something to show that the horse can be a contender in this class. Look for a pattern, rather than just one single factor, and you may find yourself cashing more tickets and buying fewer losing ones.