A latitude of flexibility must be allowed when handicapping harness racing, which recently returned to Rosecroft Raceway in Oxon Hill.
When handicapping, the complexities of many races may be reduced by quickly eliminating from consideration those horses that are not apt to be among the serious contenders. Normally, an adherence to the following will prevent many an ill-advised wager:
Eliminate as a serious contender any horse that:
Has had its normal racing cycle interrupted (if a horse has been racing every seven to 10 days, but has not started in 14 or more days, it may be indicative of some minor problem that may have necessitated a change in the animal's training schedule).
Is making its first start in 30 or more days if racing from posts 7 or 8 (it is unlikely the animal will be subjected to a severe test immediately following a lengthy layoff).
Shows two or more noninterference breaks on the program.
Shows a noninterference break in its most recent race, unless the break occurred over an off track (note: horses going off stride in consecutive races, over a fast track, are required to be entered in a nonwagering qualifying race. Before being allowed to again compete in a parimutuel event the horse must negotiate the mile, while maintaining its gait, in a time satisfactory to the judges). Often a driver will not chance a second consecutive break and may allow the horse an "easy race" immediately following a breaking performance.
Is starting from posts 6-7-8, after racing from an inside post its most recent start, lost ground through the stretch and is entered in the same or higher class. This can be an indication of declining form and the horse is usually a poor betting proposition even when dropped in class.
Has not raced on the outside (parked out) or has not held the lead in any of its previous three races. This is another indication of poor or declining form.
Is starting from posts 7 or 8 and does not show any early speed. Due to the short run to Rosecroft's first turn, early speed is an absolute essential for starters from the extreme outside post positions.
Has raced its second half-mile in slower time than its first half in each of its last two races unless the animal was subjected to unusually rigorous activity such as dueling for the lead or forced to race wide during very fast fractional times.
Educated and practiced application of the preceding normally will reduce a field to no more than five serious contenders. At this point the focus of the handicapper should turn from the negative to the positive.
The evaluation of past performance and logical choice of the most probable winner requires the handicapper to put aside any personal prejudices and objectively select the best horses and determine their present state of racing condition.
A review of money earnings, overall speed and the levels at which a horse has competed during the current and preceding year tend to make a determination of best horse or horses a relatively easy task in most instances.
It is, however, the faulty assessment of current form and physical condition that ultimately dwindles the bankrolls and produces wails of woe and innuendoes of chicanery.
It is human nature to root often for the underdog, while backing a favorite. In many instances we become oblivious to the possibility of declining physical or mental preparedness in past winners, while remaining unaware of improving challengers. Why else do we make a young then-Cassius Clay an 8-to-1 underdog to Sonny Liston, or the Baltimore Colts a prohibitive 17-point favorite over Joe Namath's New York Jets
It is usually the winners who become overcondifent, relax and lose their inherent edge, while the underdog is scratching and clawing his way to new heights. While it is difficult to reach a level of maximum efficiency in any endeavor, it is far more difficult to retain peak levels for an extended period of time.
With this premise in mind, the successful handicapper should constantly be watching for horses coming to their best, while remaining alert to horses declining from their best form. It should come as no surprise that horses descending from peak condition very often wind up as betting favorites.
Normally, a horse's two most recent races (with particular emphasis on the most recent) will provide an accurate barometer by which to gauge his present level of physical condition. One can anticipate serious efforts from horses meeting any of the following criteria:
Engaged in a duel for the early lead, provided the first quarter was the fastest of the race.
Took the lead by the quarter and was immediately challenged, resulting in a second quarter mile as fast, or faster than the first.
Improved its position during the fastest quarter of the race, particularly the third.
Gained ground through the stretch provided the second half mile was faster than the first.
Raced two or three wide around the final turn and either gained ground or lost less than one length through the stretch.
Raced on the outside (parked out) for a half mile, or more, but lost fewer than two lengths through the stretch.
One need not be concerned with the horse's finishing position or the number of lengths by which it may have been beaten. The fact that the animal utilized maximum energy during the fastest part of a race is clear indication of a forthcoming top effort.
The observation of a single animal through its entire form cycle, is the best possible way to broaden one's understanding of handicapping.
In many ways the conditioning process of a race horse may be compared to the manner in which human athletes are prepared for maximum performance.
Over a period of many months the horse is gradually brought to its physical peak. Barring injury, this plateau is maintained for a time, then regresses to a lesser state of physical preparedness. This cycle may be repeated several times during the course of a racing season.
A horse may become affected by the monotony of its regimented track track existence, becoming lethargic and have its competitive urges diminished. Very often it becomes necessary to allow the animal a few days "out to pasture" simply to freshen its mental outlook.
A horse may also require the challenge of competition before reaching peak physical condition. Unfortunately, this further conditioning is most likely to take place in a parimutuel race. The handicapper is faced with making a decision. Is the horse playing for keeps or is it entered for conditioning? It, therefore, behooves the handicapper to develop patience and pass those races which present "unknown factors."