Friday, January 25, 2013

Harnessing My Expectations

As 450 or so players vie for the National Handicapping Championship (NHC XIV) title that gets underway Friday (and Saturday), those of us on the sidelines are left chomping at the bit for a shot at the January 2014 NHC...or simply jealous that we failed to qualify for this year's Vegas extravaganza.

I'm not the jealous type, so I wish this year's NHC competitors nothing but the best.  It would be an achievement to someday qualify.  I figure it took last year's NHC champ, Michael Beychok (great speech at the Eclipse Awards, by the way), seven years just to qualify for NHC; perhaps my fate will be the same.

The 2013 NHC Tour schedule does not begin until February (in my case, with the first of three Simulcast Series Challenges).  Next Saturday at Monmouth Park cannot get here fast enough.
Translation: Bill's horses
will break stride

In the meantime, and somewhat on a lark, I played last Friday and Saturday in two free World Harness Handicapping Championship qualifiers on  I also signed on for two more contests this Friday and Saturday, but last week's grim performance does not augur well for any shot at the top spot, which would qualify me for the WHHC at the Meadowlands on April 13.

I put out a request for a Q&A with U.S. Trotting Association (USTA) communications director Dan Leary, but in the meantime I'll share my observations about harness racing.

One words come to mind: baffling.

I know so little about pacers and trotters that, even after my father explained the difference to me at least a half dozen times, I find the standard-bred world an entirely different animal than handicapping thoroughbreds and cannot distinguish between the horses' gaits, nor the past performances, rendering me clueless and, in all likelihood, with no shot at winning a spot in the WHHC.

Since it's been more like upper Saskatchewan here than New Jersey here in the Garden State the past few days, I figured I could cozy up under a blanket and practice my handicapping, albeit on a different breed of horse racing...figuring..."how different can it be, really?"

Immensely, would be my observation.

Consideration of the post position, trainer-jockey combos and class seem somewhat akin to thoroughbred handicapping, but concepts such as form, "cover flow" (race-caller parlance for drafting behind other horses, I suppose) and, especially, breaking are drastically different.

I suppose I could draw a thoroughbred sprinter's stumble out of the starting gate as a parallel to a trotter breaking stride after the start (i.e. galloping, rather than pacing), but really I dislike the concept that, with standard-breds, a horse is essentially cooked if he or she breaks.  To the contrary, I have seen thoroughbred sprinters recover from a bad start and still win or make a superfecta.

Case in point.  An acquaintance is part owner in a horse who raced at Dover Downs on Thursday night.  The horse was fresh off a win and seemed in a winnable spot, but in hindsight I learned that this horse looked askew in the warm-up and post parade and the owner knew the horse would run a clunker.  Sure enough, the horse broke stride just as the race started and finished dead last.  (Editor's note: I learned Friday afternoon that the horse chipped its hoof and should have scratched, but the trainer didn't.)

Without belaboring the point, and because I would rather first question an expert on the industry before tossing my curiosities about standard-bred racing totally aside, my initial observation is that fan education is a major problem for harness and thoroughbred racing alike. has been absolutely wonderful in trying to fill the void, and I suppose America's Best Racing deserves mention, though it seems to me a scaled-down, but I have had trouble finding good resources on the harness game.  Maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places.

Sure, I printed the free past performances from for last (and this) weekend's handicapping contests, but I might as well have read the Bible for hopes of Divine Intervention.  The marks for 2- and 3-wide "trips", for example, gave me no clues in prognosticating the contest races, nor about a horse's form or the jockey's tendencies.

I just find the thoroughbred PPs far more transparent, considering recent workouts, pace tendencies (i.e. front-runner, stalker or closer) and easier visually. Maybe it's more a comfort and experience issue for me.  Plus, features like the DRF Formulator let readers mine a boatload of data for more-granular data.  No offense to Trackmaster (here's tonight's contest races), but the horses' PPs are less telling, and the width of the jockey's bike (or sulky) often eliminates chances of horses (namely on half-mile tracks) winning from outside posts, which makes me question the value of past performances.

Maybe I'm being too harsh on the harness game and I'll shock the world in Friday's contest (featuring Chicago's Maywood Park) or Saturday's (Cal Expo, northern California), but I'm finding quickly that maybe I'm either a generation too late or simply not grasping the complexities of harness racing to draw my allegiance away from thoroughbreds.  We'll see.  Maybe that'll change.


  1. Hey at least you didn't have it as bad as Rodney.

  2. I managed to place 116th with Maywood and 190th on Cal Expo... couldn't pick a t-bred winner to save my butt this weekend... maybe trying to handicap harness racing with a stomach virus is the answer?

  3. Just get healthy by SSC#1 on Saturday, Ray. You in?