Experts discuss Harness Handicapping Tips

“Pen and Chip” handicappers discuss important and overrated angles

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 – from HANA Harness

With just a little over a week until the kick off of HANA Harness’ The Pen vs. The Chip — The Road to the Breeders Crown Handicapping Challenge co-sponsored by the Hambletonian Society, Meadowlands Racetrack, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs — we asked some of our handicappers participating in the challenge what they felt are the most important and overrated handicapping angles. Here are their thoughts.

“The most important aspect of handicapping is visualizing the trip and predicting the fractions along the way,” states Scott Alberg (Pen). ”Visualizing the trip enables you to envision the position of each horse at each mile marker. Predicting the fractions along the way allows you to determine the stamina of the pacesetters. The least important aspect of handicapping is to ascertain the type of race bike a driver is using. The Meadowlands offers this new statistic during its post parade but it is somewhat pointless. The majority of drivers use their own race bikes anyway and their stats are widely known.”

“I would say the most overrated factor when handicapping harness racing is capping purely on the final time of a horse,” says Matt Keller (Pen). “There are so many factors that aren’t taken into account in a race and it never shows on a past performance. Many horses with “good” final times are beaten an easy 7-10 lengths, tagging along for the ride at the end of the pack.”

With regards to the most important aspect, Keller goes on to say, “The most important aspect to handicapping harness racing is good early speed as shown in form from the last two-three races. I want a horse that wants the lead and wants to wire the field. Most tracks are half- to five-eighths-miles and generally either the pacesetter, first over or pocket sitter wins the race. I’d rather have the horse to catch then to catch a horse.”

“I think race mile times can be an overrated factor when handicapping,” says Mark McKelvie (Pen), “This can stand out especially in stakes events after eliminations are contested. The fact that each race sets up differently affects each race time and a 1:49 mile all out holds nothing to me over a horse who is closing hard or grinding out a victory on the front, refusing to let anyone by going in (1:)50-51 speed.”

With regards to the most important thing, McKelvie goes on to say, “Without a doubt the most important thing to me is the last quarter of a mile. The last quarter tells you everything. I look for horses who know how to pass others in the stretch. Everyone loves the flashy last quarter speed but important to me is horses who show a lot of grit coming for home and those who are still progressing in that last eighth of a mile.”

According to Bob Pandolfo (Chip), “Class is very important in handicapping. Horses with a class edge or a ‘touch of class’ usually end up beating the in-form horse that has been racing well but has never really accomplished much or beaten quality horses. For instance, if you’re handicapping a $15,000 claiming race and you’ve narrowed it down to two prime contenders. One only has three career wins against modest stock but shows solid recent form at the $15,000 level. The other horse has 30 career wins and $500,000 in earnings and looks to be rounding into form. In this situation, the horse with the proven class usually prevails.”

With regards to the most overrated factor, Pandolfo says, “The most overrated factor is ‘smart money.’ Some people think that the board shows which horses are ‘hot’ or being bet by people in the know. There is no such thing. Most horsemen and people working in the backstretch are notoriously terrible bettors. The true ‘smart’ money is bet by a few professional gamblers, but that money usually only shows up at tracks that have high handle. And professional bettor money comes into the pools late, mostly bet on longshots or overlays in exotic wagers.”

Chip handicapper Earl Paulson takes a different view; it is not a question of the most important or overrated handicapping angles as they change depending on the individual race. The key is to know how to rank the importance of each handicapping angle within the context of the particular race.

“The importance of post position depends on the type of race,” Paulson states. “If it is the final of the Little Brown Jug, I would want the rail. If it’s a race for green trotters, I would not want the rail as many a young trotter will jump off-stride from post one when the gate pulls away and the rest of the field converges on them.”

As for the driver and trainer, the top handlers at each racetrack are fairly equal in talent so Paulson suggests discounting that angle unless there is a change to someone who figures to be better suited to the horse than the previous handler.

Chip handicapper Ray Schell claims, “The most overrated factor in harness racing is post position as ranked by percent wins. Posts 1 and 5 have the highest win percentages but in this modern day game, everyone knows it and that leads to those posts being overbet. ROI percentages for post positions would be more useful but those numbers are hard to come by.”

As for the most important factor, Schell indicates the most important factor is predicting the call at the half-mile pole for all the contenders in the race. Specifically, he says, “To develop this call order one needs to take into account, which horses can leave, how many will leave, who is going to surprise leave, class/driver changes and on some days, the wind and track condition affecting the leavers.”

“I find the classification of the race itself as the most important factor in handicapping,” says Bob Zanakis (Pen). “One determines today’s race and its class and compares those in it to their previous competition. I prefer to bet those horses moving into the class (up or down) as opposed to those who have remained there for a couple of starts. Those moving up are in great shape and have every right to improve while those on the class drop have won at this level in the past.”

Zanakis states, “The most overrated handicapping tool is that of pure speed handicapping. The final times of a race are used but the manner in how the race was won will have a greater impact on the horse’s ability. Look at two horses with wins in 1:52 flat. Pure speed handicapping has them even in talent but one could have been racing against less talented horses and had his own way while the second horse was hung most of the mile. The two horses are not equal in ability although they have the same time.”

The kick-off of the handicapping challenge is next Saturday (April 28) at Yonkers Raceway. The race card features the finals of the $455,000 George Morton Levy Memorial and the $297,000 Blue Chip Matchmaker pacing series.

View the complete contest dates here:

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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is a 19-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 of the NHC twice. A former executive with and a member of the NHC Players’ Committee, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.


  1. myles ratner says

    I came at the handicapping challenge from 2 directions.i owned and spent my days caring for 10 standardbreds watching how they behaved in a variety of venues.i really learned a great deal when I rehabilitated my best horse a topnotcher,he tore out his front left suspensory and could barely walk.i spent 9 months treating him.i brought him back to the races won 5 times and got a 3rd at the meadowlands in a 20000 handicapping of that race had him 3rd.the 2nd part of handicapping evolved fromtrips,speed and buried bets were made carefully waiting for addition I got the opportunity to watch.hear see all manner of trainer chicanery.i learned from handicappers of harness and thoroughbred racing knowing they were different but the mental processing was the key.a true art form.learning patience and restraint kept me winning.

  2. Chris borell says

    No one even mentioned the best handicapping tip of all. That is watch the horses scoring just before race time. U can learn a lot if u know what to look for. That’s the secret to harness racing success along with your tips.

    • What is “scoring?”

      • asdasda dasdas says

        An ancient term where they used to turn the horse during warm- ups and bring the horse up tp speed for the last 1/4 mile to see if it’s ready to go. Clockers used to time it to see if it warmed up similar to last race date warm-up.

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