Harness Handicapping: Equipment Changes

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Eb Netr

August 7th, 2013

In addition to harness, I play thoroughbred and greyhound races. I find all of them fun to watch and handicap, each in their own way. But when it comes to equipment changes and what they mean, give me the harness races any day. The flats just have too many options and types of equipment to figure out for me. The dogs, on the other hand, have no equipment, except for the muzzle that they all wear and their blanket with the number of their post on it. No need for handicapping equipment with them.

Thoroughbred programs and the track sites usually list the equipment changes for each horse on the program. Harness track programs list the major equipment changes. To me, the two biggest changes that make me give a harness horse a second look are adding or removing hopples and blinkers or blinds. When I see that a trainer is doing something with either of those pieces of equipment, I surmise that something is up with the horse, and that the trainer is trying to fix it.

Ditto for earplugs and head poles. If a horse shies at loud noises - even the sound of the starter car or the horses' hooves on the track - ear plugs can really make a difference, especially with young horses who haven't yet gotten accustomed to the noise of a race. It can help the horse focus in the early part of the race and then the driver can kick out the line to the plugs in the stretch, so that the horse realizes that there are horses behind him, which usually stimulates it to run faster. Some horses, however, do better if the earplugs are left in all the way to the finish line.

Head poles are used to keep a horse from turning its head. Many horses wobble their heads when they race. It's just a characteristic of some of them. But, sometimes, a horse will have discomfort from an old injury or a strain and it will bob its head away from it, as if it's trying to get away from the pain. In this case, a head pole will keep it from bobbing its head and running crookedly, but it won't do anything about the discomfort. I try to figure out, during its warmup, whether a horse has a head pole to help it run straighter or because it isn't feeling one hundred percent well.

Blinkers, Murphy blinds and open bridles are types of equipment that affect how much a horse can see. A Murphy blind is a little piece of leather or synthetic fabric that fits onto a horse's bridle. It helps keep its head straight, and thus limits its vision. It's named after the man who invented it, who was a trainer with a horse that resisted full blinkers but needed its vision restricted somewhat to run its best race.

Blinkers are discs that go beside a horse's eyes and make it so that the horse can't see except in front of it. This keeps them from being aware of other horses and sulkies coming up from behind them and also helps them focus on what is in front of them. An open bridle is one that doesn't have blinkers.

Shadow rolls aren't mentioned in the equipment changes, usually, but you can see them across the horse's nose in the post parade and while the horses are warming up. They keep the horse from "jumping" or shying at shadows on the track, because they keep horses from seeing below and to the side of their noses. Horses are notorious for trying to jump over shadows, especially trotters. Some horses are worse than others about this. It seems to be hereditary.

Hopples are used, mostly with pacers, to help them stay on stride. They can be adjusted to lengthen the stride length or shorten it, depending on what length the trainer thinks is the most comfortable and natural for the horse. It sometimes takes a few tries to get them adjusted optimally. If you see trainers tinkering with the hopples, keep a close eye on how easily and naturally the horses seems to be pacing after an adjustment.

If a horse is hoppled for the first time, which usually happens with young horses, I give it a miss until I see how it reacts to being hoppled. Many young horses resist the hopples and run awkardly for a race or two before they stop resisting and let the hopples help them. Hopples are used on trotters now more than in former times. They're only on the front legs in trotters though.

Sometimes when a horse is claimed, the new trainer will try an equipment change or two that has worked with another of his horses. For this reason, I check the program when a horse is claimed, to see if the trainer is going to make an equipment change. I also keep track of how well different trainers do with equipment changes after they claim a horse. Some trainers have a knack for claiming horses that need a certain equipment change, giving it to them, and winning their first or second time out with a horse that doesn't look that good in previous races.

They say that "a change is as good as a rest." That may be true if the change is an equipment change and if it makes the horse more at ease or more focused. Watch for equipment changes in the program and while you're watching the post parade and keep notes on what works and what doesn't for as many trainers as possible. It may be surprisingly helpful to your bottom line.