Bettor Beware: Handicapping Qualifiers is a Challenge

For horse racing handicappers, one unique difference between reading a harness program versus a thoroughbred race form is the presence of qualifiers. While thoroughbreds have workouts whose results are shown in the racing form, qualifiers are unique to harness racing. The purpose of qualifiers is really to protect the betting public. They are to show that a horse is fit to race, at least to the extent that he meets a certain specific time requirement. Though the requirements for different horses vary according to age and gait, they are there to ensure that a horse at least can compete in a certain time thus making him eligible to take part in a pari-mutuel race. Also, if a horse makes a break in consecutive races or in the first race following a qualifier, he now must qualify (and stay pacing or trotting in it) before racing again. There is another purpose for qualifiers as well. Trainers often use a qualifier as a prep or a tightener. Consider it like a scrimmage game. Most times, the result isn’t the important part but rather it is the style and way the horse goes in a qualifier that is the key. For example, if a trainer wants to try a different type of equipment on a horse or teach a young horse to race in a certain style, the qualifier is the perfect place to do it.

This time of year, there are usually more and more qualifiers, contested on Friday mornings at Saratoga, due in large part to the fact that young horses are often just returning or making their debut. With the New York Sire Stakes season just around the corner, many two year olds who have never competed will qualify for the first time (and oftentimes more than once as preps for the beginning of their racing careers.) Some three year olds who have never raced or those returning after competing in their freshman campaigns are also set to make their debut. This was the case on Friday when out-of-town conditioner George Ducharme brought a trio of three year olds to town to qualify. It was clear his objective. Win and test these sophomores as they prep for the upcoming stakes season. Each member of the Ducharme trio won its qualifier with the threesome winning by a combined 39.5 lengths. The intent of the qualifiers was apparent in this case.

There are many challenging aspects to handicapping qualifiers, though, when presented with the horses when they are eligible to be wagered on. For one, trying to identify the purpose for the qualifier isn’t always easy. For example, a horse that makes back to back breaks and thus must qualify in order to race again, may have a sole purpose of staying pacing or trotting. In these instances, the horse’s connections don’t so much care where they finish or maybe times not even how fast the horse goes in the qualifier. How much stock does a bettor then put into a qualifier in that instance? What about a young horse who may be qualifying for the first time? Does that trainer just want to see the horse do enough to get qualified and thus they don’t want or expect to see the horse’s maximum effort exhibited? Most of the time for a handicapper, the answer is “I don’t know.” Sometimes these qualifiers for young horses serve as educational opportunities. Maybe the horse has plenty of early speed but the trainer would rather see him take back early and gain experience following horses as opposed to going all out in the early going.

There are a few major aspects of handicapping qualifiers that make doing so very difficult. For one, these races contested in the mornings are not recorded, at least not officially. Therefore, you can’t go back and watch the replay of a horse’s qualifier like you now can on websites offering race replays. Say a horse wins his qualifier by open lengths. Well, what caliber of horse was he competing against? By looking at a race program, you simply don’t know. Was the horse urged in the end of the mile or did he do so, as we say, while being wrapped up, meaning he was never asked for his best. For these and many other reasons, it is simply difficult to determine how much stock to put in to a horse’s qualifier when it comes to handicapping his next start.

There were several horses that raced last Thursday who showed impressive qualifiers in the previous week or two. In A Single Bound won the award for Two Year Old Pacer of the Year at Saratoga in 2016 as the Monica Krist trainee went four for five as a freshman. The three year old had two qualifiers as preps for his seasonal debut on Thursday. In his first one, In A Single Bound won while coming from well off the pace. In his most recent Friday “scrimmage,” the sophomore went coast to coast. Showing nothing but wins on the program, In A Single Bound was the public’s 1-5 betting favorite. After all, he shows early speed in his latest qualifier but did he really leave quickly or was he simply clearly the best horse in the qualifier and thus moved out to the lead before coasting to victory? In fact, the super talented three year old doesn’t have much early speed and even when he did his winning in ’16, he very rarely got away near the front. In turn, what may have at first glance appeared likely to be a front-running win to come for In A Single Bound on Thursday, who is destined to have another great year, turned into a closing effort and a trip that would get the best of the heavy favorite. He had to settle for second on Thursday (despite pacing 1:54.4 in his return) and served as an example for how sometimes a qualifier can be deceiving, in this case in regards to early speed. Also on Thursday, there was a pair of 6-5 favorites who were such due to their performances in their most recent qualifiers. Neither of which won on Thursday, in fact neither one finished in the top three in their respective races. While it is certainly not suggested that you discount what you see from a qualifier when handicapping, you must always be a bit cautious when putting too much stock into what really is just a “scrimmage,” a test run in which oftentimes the process is far more important than the result.

The live racing schedule sees a bit of a change this week with Thursday racing starting at 4:00pm. Friday and Saturday first posts are 6:45pm while the Sunday matinee begins at 12:15pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!

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