Harness Handicapping - Two Kinds of Pace Make the Race

Eb Netr

January 23rd, 2013

Pace is a word that handicappers use a lot. Whether you're handicapping greyhounds, standardbreds or thoroughbreds, pace is a big part of figuring out how the race will play out. Will there be early speed? If so, how much?

If there is early speed, will it hold up? Are there any closers in the race? If there are, will they be close enough at the end to close in the stretch? Early speed or lack of it almost always determines the pace of a race i.e. how fast each quarter of the race is run.

But another kind of pace needs to be considered also, especially when you're handicapping harness races. I ran into this fact on my first trip to a harness track. I went with my friend, Bill Peterson, who is the one who got me into greyhound racing many years ago.

Bill offered to point me to some good bets and said there was one in the first race. When I looked at the horse, I thought Bill had lost his mind. It was a race for 3 yr olds and up non-winners of one parimutuel race. The horse Bill liked to win had raced 15 times with one third place finish, and that was the year before when it was three years old.

There were other horses in the race that had raced fewer times and had come in second, so why, I asked Bill, should I want to play a horse that proved it could lose 15 times? What he said made a lot more sense after his pick won at 11-1.

He said that, as a greyhound and thoroughbred player, I had to adjust to the pace of harness racing. Dogs start racing before they're two years old and race for about 3 years, maybe 4. It's rare to see a 5 year old dog still racing. Thoroughbreds usually don't race beyond their 4th or 5th year.

But harness horses, Bill explained, although they usually start racing when they're 2 years old, may race for over a decade. The rule is that they have to stop racing when they turn 15. Since all harness horses turn a year older on January 1st, a lot of them race until their 14th year.

Of course, not all standardbreds are able to race for that long, but I've seen many that are 8, 10, 12 years old, still racing and still winning. One of my favorite harness horses, Off Keel, turned 12 this year and was still running and winning for decent purses last fall at the Maine tracks. The gray pacer rarely let me down at the window, when he was in the right post at the right class level.

Because horses have the potential to run for so long, good trainers will take their time with a horse when it's young. They know that some horses need extra time to mature and develop racing smarts. While a few harness horses "get it" after only a few races, many don't. It's important to remember this when you handicap harness races with young horses in them.

The key to picking winners in "non-winners of 1" races, is speed and improvement. Look for the horse with good speed in its last race, and improvement in its last two or three races. Other indicators that a horse is ready to win are horses that are parked out but still finish within a couple lengths of the winner, and horses who manage to stay within a couple lengths of the winner until the second half of the stretch, and then get passed.

Don't get hung up on how many races a horse has had, as long as its speed is comparable to the horses it's racing with today. If it's been making any effort at all in its last two or three races, and it's in a good post position, give it careful consideration. If it's a three to five year old harness horse, even one with no wins and several races, today might be the day that it finally puts its speed together with pace and wins at good odds.