You hear it all the time. Whether it’s from a thoroughbred fan/bettor or from people who haven’t spent much time around harness racing….”only favorites win in harness racing.” While that is clearly untrue, there are reasons for this kind of generalization. There is no question that favorites win at a higher rate in harness racing, especially at half miles tracks, than in thoroughbreds and for several potential reasons. First, field size is one major cause. Obviously, if there are ten or eleven horses in a race, the “favorite” won’t win the same percentage of times than it will in a field or seven or eight. Also, on a half mile track, the percentage of horses winning from post seven or eight isn’t very high. While it does occur, it is pretty rare for a horse from one of the outside posts to be a favorite and even tougher for them to win. These are just a few of several potential causes to have favorites win at a higher percentage in harness racing.
In years past, favorites prevail at Saratoga at a rate of roughly 45%. This season, that percentage has dropped a few points. Though everything, it seems, is different in the year 2020, there are some reasons you can point for the reduction in favorites prevailing particularly after the return from the three-month shutdown. It seems that horses have been in a bit more “win now” mode this season. I’m a full believer that when trainers put their horses in the hands of their driver, both want to win….period. But let’s be realistic. There are plenty of times in racing where your horse is simply not in a winning spot. Yes, if the race “falls apart” then maybe you can get lucky but it isn’t prudent or practical to go all out every week. After all, horses that, for example, may be a 50-1 longshot from post eight can’t be expected to just leave out of there in a scenario where they will likely get parked out. Instead, take back, settle in and see what happens in the race. The old adage of “they’re not trying” this week is a thing of the past. Again, there are scenarios, for example if the horse has gone three or four weeks in between races, that they may need a start. That is, get a race back under their belt from an outside post and hope to be ready to roll when in a better spot or from a better post next week. They’re trying, they want to win but they’re also looking out for the betterment of the horse- not only in the short term but long term as well. In the past few months though, a lot of horses are pressed into action that normally may have been in a “we need a start” type scenario previously mentioned. Also, with new guidelines that have been implemented not allowing drivers to just give up holes or seats early in races, there has been a bit more action in the races than perhaps there was pre-pandemic shutdown.
With all of that said and with favorites still winning at a clip around 40% this season, Monday afternoon’s race card put the “favorites always win” theory to bed like perhaps never before. On the thirteen race program, only one favorite wound up winning. The afternoon’s opener featured 9-5 co-favorites as well as a 2-1 shot. None of those three prevailed though. In fact, it was 13-1 longshot Kasha’s Boy that sprung the upset with Mark Beckwith driving for trainer Brian Walker. While the $28.20 win price of Kasha’s Boy was the largest of the day, it was anything but the only surprise that the matinee had in store. A $14.20 horse, Phine By Me, scored in race two and completed a hearty $338.50 early daily double. Races three through five comprise the pick three and on Monday, saw winners that were dismissed at odds of 9-1, 6-1 and 7-1, respectively. For the first time in months, the pick five, which now has a $3,000 daily guarantee and thus has been hit almost every day, had no winners and resulted in a carryover to Tuesday which wound up yielding a pick five pool that was close to $15,000.
Following the afternoon’s lone winning favorite in race six, it was right back to the big prices. The track had been labeled “good” after a morning of rain in Saratoga and if the theory was that the off track had something to do with the favorites struggling (though the track was the same for every horse!), it was disproven quickly. By race seven, the track was called “fast: and the upsets just kept coming. Trainer Perry Simser teamed up with reinsman Alek Chartrand for a pair of victories on Monday and it was veteran trotter Winter Mint who completed his training double. Winter Mint drew the rail but was dismissed at odds of 9-1 when he parlayed his pocket trip to victory to light up the board with a $21.20 win price. 8-1 shot Mass Confession came from off the pace to register a win on Monday and paid big despite having the meet’s leading driver Billy Dobson in the sulky. Dobson has been red-hot of late, a stretch lengthened when he went on to pilot five winners on Tuesday’s card at the Spa.
The afternoon’s longshot winners came to an end after a victory by a trotter who recorded his first win of the season and just his second in 35 lifetime starts. Black Magic Storm had Brian Cross catch-driving for his brother trainer John Cross. After a lengthy stint of drawing miserable post positions, Black Magic Storm had post four on Monday and was aggressive moving first-over on the race’s favorite. And just like so many did that afternoon, the favorite faltered and Black Magic Storm took over and took off. The young trotter paid $27 to round out the group of longshots that thrived on a day with bigger payouts than we’ve seen on one card in quite some time. While the day’s finale wasn’t exactly a big upset, it did see trotter Cartier Volo come from ninth in a nine-horse field before scoring a victory despite trailing by thirteen lengths after the first quarter of the race. Another extremely difficult path to a win for a horse on a half-mile track that thrived on a Monday matinee that saw just one favorite prevail and eight win prices between $14.20 and $28.20. No, there were no $100 horses that scored on longshot day but the big prices just kept coming, all furthering the point that it’s not all favorites that win in harness racing on half mile tracks. The trend of favorites faltering has been pronounced this season even more since the return from the shutdown as the owners, trainers and drivers are even hungrier for success than normal. You want to bet some longshots and hope for some big prices, well, so you’re saying there’s a chance? There sure is of late at the Spa as the upsets have just kept coming.
Live racing takes place on Monday and Tuesday afternoons at Saratoga with matinees beginning at 12 Noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!