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U.S. Harness Racing Tips and Strategies

Updated on January 28, 2018

Never underestimate the importance of the driver

Too many bettors overlook a very important part of the equation --- the driver. Obviously, the ability of the horse is typically the biggest factor in determining if they win or lose. However, because harness racing is usually more about the pace of the race rather than the speed of the equine, the person in the sulky is a major factor.

A significant driver change is something you will always want to notice in the program pages. Be familiar with the drivers at the track and know who the winners are and who are the entrants who will need a perfect trip to win. No matter how good a horse looks in the past performances, a poor driver will almost surely get them beat. The biggest difference in an elite reinsman and an average one is that the great one can win without the best horse or a great trip. When you see one of the leaders replacing someone who has had marginal results, you had better make note of it when you are making your selections.

When stakes races come to a track, they attract drivers from all across the area to come into town to try to grab the major share of the purse. So, you will want to educate yourself on the newcomers.

The top drivers in the United States usually compete at The Meadowlands and Yonkers, where the biggest opportunities for money are. However, due to the unflux of racinos and casinos at the racetracks, the purses have increased and many of the elite spread out across the country looking to increase their earnings. Pocono Downs, Ladbroke at the Meadows, and Harrah's Philadelphia all have very strong colonies of drivers because of the additional monies.

Here are some basic tips I can offer when it comes to reinsman at various tracks:

1. At The Meadows, the top dog for over 20 years has been Dave Palone. His numbers still look amazing in the program, but his victories come aboard heavy favorites now. You are better off ignoring him whenever he looks remotely vulnerable. Aaron Merriman, Brett Miller, and Mike WIlder are all well-above average and can win at long odds. Tony Hall, another excellent driver, is especially strong on trotters and when he is in the sulky for the first time.

2. Harrah's Philadelphia is a very tough place for a bettor to make money. The competition is very equal, so you have to really pick your spots before parting with your cash. I recommend using Corey Callahan whenever the horse shows ability to get to the lead. He is extremely patient and has a knack for helping his charge relax when in front. When the trotters are on the track, you can never overlook Yannick Gingras. No matter what the program shows, he is the best trot driver alive. Bold statement ? Maybe, so you be the judge.

3. The Meadowlands (or Big M) offers the biggest stakes races of the year. When the money is on the line, Tim Tetrick, Gingras, Brian Sears and George Brennan seem to always be flying at the finish line.

4. Pocono Downs is known for it's ridiculously fast times for a 5/8 mile oval. Jim Morrill Jr. and Matt Kakaley are the main bread winners there, but when George Napolitano Jr is on the card, you should study how his day is going. He gets on a hot streak now and then where he will win half of the races for the day.

Drivers on the rise: Eric Carlson, Marcus Miller, Eric Goodell, Montrell Teague, Jason Bartlett, Ronnie Wrenn Jr.

Superstar "The Bionic Man" Tim Tetrick
Superstar "The Bionic Man" Tim Tetrick | Source

Hypothetical Poll

Who would you trust to steer your own horse in a big race ?

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Understanding Trotters

A standardbred who trots is not wired the same as one who is a pacer. Although the actual times of the two gaits are only separated by a few seconds for the mile distance, the way they go about a race is quite different.

Typically, you want your prospective winner to be on the front end, in the pocket (sitting in 2nd, directly behind the leader), or 2nd over (the horse on the outside, right behind the first horse that isn't along the rail). However, the trotter cannot accelerate in the same way as a pacer without breaking stride. They like to run similar fractions for all four quarter mile distances rather than making huge gains in the early stages or in the stretch. Because of this, you shouldn't fear a horse who almost certainly will be the first one to pull to the outside. They are not hampered by having to rely on the animal in front of them to keep going at their desired pace. Also, it's better to lead than to sit in the pocket for the same reason. The front-runner has the ability to set his/her own pace and is able to relax better than if being bothered by a foe blocking their path.

The biggest tip I can share with you: Do not bet a trotter who has the first post position unless they show the ability to run well from there in the recent past. They seem to break stride a huge number of times, often from either trying hard to protect the rail or from trying to relax them and sit back early. For both of those reasons, you are better off betting against any trotter starting from Post 1.

Drivers with upgraded abilities for this gait: Tony Hall, Charlie Norris, Mike Wilder, Richard Stillings, Dan Charlino, , David Miller

Avoid when possible: Ronnie Wrenn Jr, Jim Morrill Jr, Anthony Morgan, Dave Palone

During the warm-ups, watch the horses as they pass by. You want a trotter whose front legs seem  to form a circle as they run.  A sound (healthy) horse will almost always form a natural circle when trotting at a slow pace.
During the warm-ups, watch the horses as they pass by. You want a trotter whose front legs seem to form a circle as they run. A sound (healthy) horse will almost always form a natural circle when trotting at a slow pace. | Source

Track Size

The majority of racetracks are either one mile, 5/8 mile, or 1/2 mile. There are a few exceptions, such as the 7/8ths Hoosier Park and the one turn races at Colonial Downs. However, they are the minority and not the standard.

The more turns in the race increases the distance that a competitor has to navigate to get to victory. Plus, it's much more difficult for a horse to run it's best when going around a turn. So, early position is more important than ever on a shorter track.

if you like a horse on the outside on a smaller surface, check to be sure that there are not too many others inside of them who demand the early lead. If so, they will have major obstacles in front of them and should be avoided. Wait for another day ! One of the biggest races of the year, The Little Brown Jug, is held at the Delaware County Fairgrounds in Ohio.

The 5/8ths mile tracks seem to offer the best racing and are the fairest to all of the entries. The Meadows in Washington, PA has some of the closest finishes in the country as it's long stretch allows the trailers to make a serious run at the end.

One mile tracks are inconsistent, where some days they favor speed and other days will favor closers. Track condition plays a role in that, so pay close attention to how the previous events have gone that day.

Personal Preference Poll

What is your favorite type of track to play ?

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How important is the pace ?

To be blunt --- it's VERY important. People lose millions of dollars a year because they get consumed with looking at the final times of previous starts to determine who is the best. You will do yourself a huge favor by learning not to let finishing times sway your handicapping knowledge.

A solid 10K claimer who races consistently in 1:55 will almost always dominate a good 6K claiming horse who shows a bunch of 1:54 miles. You have to learn how to read a program to spot the subtle differences between classes and trips.

One of the easiest favorites to beat is the type that shows incredible times by following the pack around but never actually gaining ground. Horse are natural pack animals, so they will bust their butts to stay with the others, even if they can never actually pass them. Instead, pick someone with higher odds who shows the ability to get to the early lead and relax.

I mention speed a lot (referring to the ability to grab the early lead) because it's ultra important in the long run. Traffic problems are often difficult to overcome for competitors that like to come from the back all of the time. You can steal victories simply by being ahead of accidents, traffic problems, horses who break stride, or simply getting boxed in along the rail.

For the advanced handicapper, you probably understand enough about the past performances to calculate how fast the back half of a race goes. You do this by checking positions and lengths behind at the half versus the finishing positions and time. As a rule, there are 5 lengths per second, so a horse who is 3rd by 3 lengths in a :58 half mile fraction actually went in 58:3, or 58 and 3/5 seconds. Then, if the race finished in 1:57 and he won, then you know his final half went in 58 and 2/5 seconds. Compare this final stat among all the horses and you may notice severe differences that indicate a big discrepancy in true talent levels. This can tell you how strong a closer really finishes. If he only gains ground in slow final halves of races, he is only a pretender. However, if he makes up ground in a quick final half, then this animal is a legitimate contender to get his photo taken in the winner's circle.

Sea Slicker driven by Eric Carlson, one of the top up and coming drivers in the Pennsylvania area
Sea Slicker driven by Eric Carlson, one of the top up and coming drivers in the Pennsylvania area | Source

More General Tips to increase your chances of picking a winner

*** Keep an eye on horses who have won a lot of money in the past in major races, but are in today for a small purse. They may be using this as a springboard to get their horse in shape for a bigger payday down the road.

*** Don't bet 2-year olds versus older horses no matter what. Period. Their lack of experience will usually make them nervous even when facing much slower equines.

*** In a race full of front runners, find the best (or hopefully ONLY closer). In a race where everyone likes to come from the back, find the best early speed. They can steal this race by going slow in the early going and having tons of reserve in the stretch.

*** Understand the nuances of each racetrack that you bet. Different running styles are favored by track conditions and track size. For instance, the inside passing lane at The Meadows is incredibly fast. On the other hand, Pompano Park in Florida has a lower lane that is virtually worthless. At Harrah's Philadelphia, for whatever reason, the leaders often drift to the middle of the track and someone sitting in 5th place is able to go under the front 4 with little resistance. Paying attention to these subtle points can lead to big dividends.

*** Bigger pools equals better potential payouts. For this reason, you should avoid tracks such as Scarborough Downs, Plainridge, Bangor, Cal Expo, and Lebanon Raceway. Even the trifectas with 3 longshots rarely pay you off like they should.

Final Point - The Vision Test

You can often find a longshot for the gimmicks (exacta, trifecta, superfecta) simply by looking closely at the entries when they are in the post parade and the subsequent warm-up. You can also eliminate a favorite if they look bad when you visually inspect them.

1. No matter how hot and humid it is, a horse who is in shape will not have a white lather of sweat on his/her body. If you notice it, don't bother considering them for your ticket. I've seen these types hang around to finish a distant 2nd or 3rd, but they don't get their picture taken.

2. Look at the lines (reins, so to speak) between the horse and the driver. You don't want them to be loose and sagging. You ideally want to see a strong pull (without yanking), which indicates that there is a lot of energy built up in the animal.

3. Check that the horse isn't turning his head to one side, especially in a turn. They tend to instinctively lean toward an injury. Also, look for knee boots and spreaders on the legs, which typically is an indicator that their legs bang into each other around a turn. They are not a big deal at all on large tracks, but smaller tracks are brutal when a horse has issues with banging knees and legs (referred to as cross-firing).

4. If you regularly attend the races, you may recall certain traits from previous weeks. I can honestly remember a horse in the late 1980s named Raque Bogart that seemed to win whenever his hair and tail were braided. Call me crazy, but me and my friends actually cashed numerous tickets on him on the weeks that he was decked out for the race.

5. If the race is a Trot, take note of the point I made earlier and look for a nice motion from the front legs. Also, watch for a horse who is acting up in warm-ups. Trotters are quite temperamental, especially the fillies and mares. Generally speaking, if they are "in a bad mood", they usually don't perform at their best that day.

Broad Bahn, winner of the 2011 Hambletonian for 3-year old trotters.  He was driven to victory by George Brennan, the kingpin of Yonkers Raceway.
Broad Bahn, winner of the 2011 Hambletonian for 3-year old trotters. He was driven to victory by George Brennan, the kingpin of Yonkers Raceway. | Source

NOTE: The film is not titled "Johnny Legend", but actually "Johnny Longshot".

More advanced tips for the interested bettor

Score Big At The Harness Track!
Score Big At The Harness Track!
This is the most accurate book I have read about the sport of Harness racing. It goes into a lot more detail that I was able to get into in this article. For someone who wants to learn some of the more advanced strategies, I highly recommend this book.

Feedback is always welcome !

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