Harness Handicapping is More Than Picking a Good Driver

Profile Picture: Eb Netr

Eb Netr

February 12th, 2013

Although I usually play the races at home, online, once in a while, I meet my friend, Ed, at the harness track or OTB. He's a confirmed player of The Meadows, a Red Sox fan and not afraid to voice his opinion on anything, especially a driver's lack of ability when Ed has his horse to win and it isn't.

"What are you doing?" he yells as his horse pulls out in the first panel. "Stay in the pocket, you fool! There goes my twenty bucks. Unbelievable!"

I get a kick out of Ed. He'll carry on about how lousy a driver is and then turn around and bet him two races later and tell me how smart the guy is when he wins. I imagine he does the same thing at baseball games. He's not a bad guy, just a little loud.

Ed and I have different handicapping styles and I'm not a yeller. I may groan when my horse holds the lead for three quarters of the race and then fades at the wire, but I don't blame the driver - or the horse. I couldn't drive a horse if you paid me, which no one would do, so I don't think I have room to criticize the drivers. Sometimes, your horse just doesn't have it. They can't get out and push.

Ed picks horses by driver. He only plays the top 3 drivers at the Meadows, which means his money is usually on Dave Palone, Tony Hall and Aaron Merriman. They're all very good at rating horses, but I don't think playing them, rather than handicapping all the horses and drivers in a race is a good idea.

Dave Palone has a very high 26% for wins. He's a very good driver, one of the best in the country, but he still loses. He's in the money 52% of the time, so that means he's not in the money 48% of the time. Because he's the top driver at the track, he gets very good horses and many of them don't pay very well when they win. They pay even less for place and show. This is why, even though he's the best driver, he has a negative ROI for wins.

The same is true for every driver in the top twenty at The Meadows, and at most tracks. Just betting a driver every time he drives, no matter how good he is, is a recipe for losing money. Because the payoffs are often small at the harness tracks, it's really important to pick and choose your bets. I sometimes only play three or four races on a program, which made for a dull day out, before simulcasting and online wagering came along.

Now, I handicap the night before the races. Then I pick and choose which horses at which tracks I want to play. I may not find anything that I really like on a program, but that's all right. I can probably find something I like at another track. I do take the driver's UDR and stats into consideration, but that's not all I use to handicap.

I think speed is the most important factor in handicapping harness races, but only when considered in relation to post position. I very seldom play a horse with the top speed in a bad post position. Likewise, I seldom play a very good horse with a very bad driver. Unlike Ed, I believe that picking a horse with good speed, good post position AND a good driver is what makes money at the harness track.