Harness Handicapping Terrible Twos and Terrific Threes

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Eb Netr

August 14th, 2013

Those of us who have raised children can sympathize with trainers who have to deal with the equine equivalent of the Terrible Twos. Some of the best pacers and trotters racing today were famous for their tantrums as toddlers and babies. Bee A Magician, winner of the Hambletonian Oaks, was known for suddenly losing her temper, busting through gates and just generally tearing up the place at White Birch Farms where she spent her first two years.

Trainer Nifty Norman saw her potential through the acting up and worked with her until she was calm enough to trot her way to ten victories in ten races, so far, this year. It may just be this determination to have her own way that helps her beat older horses and give her best even when she doesn't have the perfect post position or trip.

There are very few horses, especially if they're trotters, who have a spotless record during their two year old campaign. Everything is new to them and they're adjusting to the gate, the noise, the crowd and the equipment and adjustments to it. It's similar to our toddlers having to put up with car seats and strollers with belts and nursery school or day care with other kids.

Like humans, harness horses mature at different rates. Some are precocious and seem to just accept whatever their trainer does to them. They don't shy at crowd noise or get antsy behind the gate. They seem to follow it as if they've always followed large fences on moving vehicles - which is a strange concept for a horse to wrap its head around, if you think about it. Fences in fields don't move.

Other horses struggle all through their two year old season, breaking stride over the slightest thing, like another horse coming alongside to pass, an inside post position for trotters or a pace that is just a little faster than they're used to. They fight their driver and their trainer at every opportunity, tossing their heads and rolling their eyes, obviously not at ease on the track, and not sure exactly what is being asked of them.

Sometimes, when I look at a program page for a 2 Year Old Trot, and see a horse that has more x's than a tic tac toe board, I wonder why the trainer even bothers putting the horse in a race. Who is going to play a horse that has broken in more races than not? Not me.

But then I remember that harness racing isn't thoroughbred racing. It's not about superstar 2 year olds that beat the field by double digit lengths and then fizzle or get injured during their 3 year old season. It's a long, slow, patient process, bringing a 2 year old harness horse through its first racing season, conditioning it carefully and giving it what it needs to do its best and build confidence.

True, there are some 2 year olds that are standouts from their first "earn and learn" baby race, but not as many as there are budding future stars, who will be even better as 3 and 4 year olds and older horses than they are as babies. They may struggle in their first few races, but will gradually improve until they get the hang of pacing themselves and leaving something left for the stretch, instead of going all out like young horses do when they're running with other horses in a field.

As the racing year advances, we're starting to see more races for 3 year olds than 2 year olds. We have to adjust our thinking and our handicapping to reflect the sometimes shocking leaps that horses make as they go from their 2nd to 3rd year. It can sometimes happen overnight that a horse will suddenly come into its own and get serious about winning. It's the same way that our kids seem to suddenly grow two inches overnight. Whether they really do or whether we just don't notice it while it's happening, it seems like a sudden change.

So, when you turn your attention to races for 3 year olds, keep in mind that they may be completely different horses than they were the year before. Don't be surprised if the horse that couldn't stay on stride for more than a quarter of the race, has learned how to control all four of its trotting legs without even thinking about it, as it grittily closes in the stretch, despite being parked out and under pressure from horses behind it.

Handicap these horses from the perspective of what they're capable of now, not by what they did when they were a year younger. Judge them by their recent qualifiers and their first races of THIS season. Look for trainers that have been down this road before with young horses, and have brought them along successfully. Look at the sires and damsires to see if their progeny is usually precocious or whether they take a little longer to mature.

Kadabra, Bee A Magician's sire, is known for siring sons and daughters who are feisty as 2 year olds, and even flighty. But he's also known for producing champions who settle down well enough to win somewhere around their 3rd or 4th year. As handicappers, we need to adjust our judgement of young horses as they mature into adulthood if we want to keep cashing tickets on them.