Harness Handicapping: Claiming Races

Profile Picture: Eb Netr

Eb Netr

June 5th, 2013

Many handicappers hate claiming races. They'll tell you that it's impossible to make money on claiming races, either because the favorite wins and doesn't pay, or some longshot comes out of nowhere and wins at monster odds. I strongly disagree. I think claiming races are the easiest and most financially rewarding races on the program, if you can find any.

Nowadays, most claiming races come with conditions that blur the lines between the good bets and bad bets. It's hard to tell if a horse is in the race to win or just to fill a space and get a workout. Does the trainer intend to have the driver push the horse or only win if everything comes together in its favor? I don't waste time on these conditioned claimer races. I stick with straight claiming races with no conditions.

I find them at several tracks and handicap them for horses that are either very good bets because of what they've done, or longshots worth a risk because of what they've done in their last couple of races. Ironically, cheap claiming races are one of the types of races where there is often a huge favorite at 3-5 or 1-9. I have no idea why, when the caliber of horses makes the outcome less certain, people bet the favorite down to ridiculous odds. (It happens in 2 year old trots for fillies too, but don't get me going on 2 year old filly trotters. That's another nervous breakdown entirely.)

What I look for in claiming races is a horse that has shown something in its last race. Ideally, I want a horse that has won or at least led for part of the race and that has finished close to the winner. Two lengths out or less is a very good sign, but if no other horse has finished close, I'll take a horse that has finished within 3 lengths after leading for at least one call. If it was parked out for part of that time, I really start to pay attention.

If there's only one such horse in the race, and if it's the big favorite, I'll usually pass on the race unless I can find an exacta with the favorite and a longshot that has a chance of being second. If, however, there are two horses that fit my "led for one call and finished close to the winner" criteria, and one of them isn't the favorite, but is at odds of 7-2 or more, I'll play that horse to win.

Of course, I handicap the race and the horses that fit the criteria for other things too. I want to see a driver who can get the horse to the finish line first and whose driving style fits the horse's running style. I want to see the horse in a good post position. If it's a leaver, I want to see it on the inside with no other leavers to its inside. If it's a closer, I want to see that it's going to be no worse than 4th after the gate opens, with no other good closers in front of it.

Some trainers make most of their money from the claiming game. If you keep track of who they are and how they do it, you'll be able to tell when they're ready to win with a horse they've claimed. Maybe they always use the same driver or drivers when they think the horse is ready. Maybe they drive the horse themselves in a race or two and then switch drivers. Maybe it's an equipment change that signals that the horse is pointed toward a win.

The more you dig into the habits of trainers, the more often you'll be able to tell when their horses are a good bet. This is especially important if you want to play claiming races. In a stakes race, you know that every driver is going to do everything he or she can to get that horse over the line first. In a claiming race, the driver has to keep in mind that his horse is probably going to be running in races every week, so he might not want to push the horse as hard, if it doesn't have a clear shot at the lead.

It's not "cheating". It's doing what's best for the horse in races where using the horse hard in an attempt to win, might take so much out of the horse, that it won't be able to win its next race where it has a better shot at winning. This is an important point to understand. Betting on longshots that have almost no chance in a claiming race, and hoping for a miracle, is NOT going to make you money.

Betting on a horse that has won its last claiming race and is moving up, but not by too much IS a good bet. So is playing a horse that managed to get the lead in its last race, even if it could only get within two lengths of the winner at the end of the race. Betting on a longshot that was parked out and STILL managed to finish within two lengths of the leader is a very good bet. Find one of these that is moving from an outside post position to an inside one on a half mile track, and you may see it cross the line first at double digit odds. And that's what I like about claiming races.