Harness Handicapping With A Sense Of Humor

Eb Netr

September 18th, 2013

I used to go to a small harness track in the Midwest. I won't name names, but it was a half mile track which had seen better days, but it had a loyal core of fans who showed up for almost every race. I was one of them and I sat in the bar area where most people sat, because it had the best TV's. Once in a while, we'd have to order the bartender to turn off golf and put on harness racing, but there's always something.

One day, my brother, Alan, and I were sitting at a table, trying to find some value plays or just about anything to play amongst the $500 claimers and races with only 6 horses. A group of four men sat down next to us and started doing the same thing. The tables were close, so we couldn't help but overhear their conversation and it was strange to say the least. They started out by saying that the first race all depended on someone's dog.

"We need to see if Jerry's little dog is in his truck," a guy with a green hat said. "I'll go look and you look at the second race."

He nipped out and they turned the page. My brother looked at me with raised eyebrows and mouthed, "Jerry's dog?" Well, one of the drivers was named Jerry, I noticed. I couldn't figure out what his dog had to do with his chances on the 3 horse, which had decent speed numbers but was a tad erratic. It seemed to come in when it felt like it, as far as I could see. And all with Jerry as the driver.

Green Hat rushed back in and sat down and announced that Jerry's little dog was, indeed, in his truck. They palavered for a few minutes and then, two at a time, they got up and placed bets. They watched the race on the same TV we watched it on, but our 1 horse didn't win and their 3 horse did.

"Hah!" A guy in a gray sweatshirt said, "I told you he only wins when he has his dog with him. He and the dog go over the program together. You can see him with the dog on his lap, looking at the program and talking to the dog about it."

Alan, and I looked at each other and wondered if, maybe, we should find another table. But we had to admit that Jerry had won and he did have his dog with him. It was just too weird to accept though, especially the part about him looking over the program and discussing it with his dog. Maybe that would work at the greyhound races, but at the harness track?

"So what color was his face?" Grey sweatshirt was asking the guy next to him, who was wearing sunglasses. "Was it red?"

"I don't know," Sunglasses said, "He was in his car, so it was hard to tell. But I'd say it was pink, at the most."

"Not red, though, right?" The fourth man, who was wearing suspenders, asked.

"No, definitely not red," Sunglasses said.

All four went back to perusing their programs and then, once again, got up to make a bet, by two's. This time I couldn't see anything in the program that would help me figure out what the color of someone's face had to do with handicapping. Did one of the drivers go to the beach and get a sunburn and drive lousy afterward, I wondered?

Well, I found out what face color had to do with winning a race when the 5 went over the finish line first and the four guys next to us went crazy. They were high-fiving and waving their tickets around and obviously, they were winning tickets.

"I told you Jim stopped drinking!" Suspenders said. "He hasn't been red in the face for weeks. And he can win if he stays off the sauce and isn't hung over."

And win he had, at 19-1 and they had him six ways to Sunday. Alan and I hadn't had him, but then, fools that we were, we had handicapped the conventional way, instead of with the Red Face method of harness handicapping. Missed the Little Dog handicapping system in the first race too. Evidently, we were going to have to change our style here.

The four guys sat out the next race and didn't discuss anything more than which NFL team would win the game on Sunday. But the race after that seemed to call for an entirely new method of handicapping. They all turned their chairs and faced the door to the grandstand. They sat and watched and didn't say a word to each other. We were intrigued, but mystified.

"There he goes!" Sunglasses yelled. "He's heading out now so he can make it to the winner's circle in time. He thinks it has a chance."

They all rushed up to the betting machines and started punching in numbers. Alan and I, who didn't have a clue in this race for 2 year old filly trotters - one of the hardest to handicap, I think - sat in our chairs and didn't buy a ticket.

The race went off and half the field went offstride behind the gate and most of the others went offstride later in the race. It was the usual chaotic contest that you get with young trotters, especially females, but one horse didn't jump at all. She just stayed flat from gate to wire, as they say, and won in a very good time. Her name was Griggin Gertie and she was from the Griggin Stables.

That's when the penny dropped. The man in the winner's circle getting his picture taken with Griggin Gertie and the trainer, was an elderly man known as Slim, probably because he was almost perfectly round and must have weighed about 400 pounds. He had difficulty walking and never walked when he could sit, but he always tried to make it out to the winner's circle, when he knew that one of the horses that he owned through his Griggin Stables, was going to win. So, that's what those guys had been looking for!

I had to give them credit for thinking of that. And I guess I had to admire them for figuring out that Jerry's little dog inspired him to better driving efforts, even if I didn't believe that the dog went over the program with him. And I guess it makes sense that a redfaced hungover driver doesn't do as well as a well-rested one who hasn't had a drink in weeks.

I'm not recommending that anyone else adopt this type of handicapping method, but I have to say that it's a unique one and one that amused me for that whole program. The foursome continued to handicap with their odd methods, including one race where they didn't play a favorite whose owner had shorts on, because they said he never wore shorts when he was going to go into the winner's circle, because he was shy about his bony knees.

What I DO recommend is that you use the standard factors to handicap, like speed, pace, class and trainer and driver percentages. Play on Bet America and get rewards for bonus tracks. Invite a friend over to join you on their laptop, so you can socialize while you play the races. And when you look at the post parade online, if it's raining, make sure you notice whether that driver at one of the Northeast tracks has his glasses on. You know, the one who needs them to win in the slop, but sometimes forgets them. You have to handicap for that, of course. I always do.