The Statistical Edge

Track to Track

A horse moving to a new venue can be an overlooked play

By Bob Gardner

This article covers one of the murkier areas of harness handicapping: evaluating shippers. Note that horses moving between “alternating” tracks are not considered shippers, such as those who move from Buffalo Raceway to Batavia Downs.

I have found that shippers often tend to be under-bet. This may be because of provincialism or neophobia (fear of new situations). How often have you heard the phrase “the horse needs a race over the track?”

This generalization is usually not true. A well-spotted shipper is usually trained and ready to go the first time on the new track.

I have been tracking my bets for the past nine years, correlating different variables with the $2 win price (see March 2017 column titled “Chart Your Biases”). One of the variables I have often tracked is “shipper,” and this has regularly been a profitable bet. From late December 2016 through early July 2017, I placed 73 such bets, winning 44 percent of them, with an index of 1.37, or a return on investment (ROI) of 37 percent.

The best evaluation tool for shippers is the TrackMaster™ speed rating (SR) in the horse’s last race. This accounts for two separate variances: variances from track to track, and day-to-day variances at the same track. If a shipper has the highest SR in the race, chances are he is a solid bet, with some exceptions as noted below.

Another factor to consider is the number of days since the horse’s last race. Under ordinary circumstances, if a horse has missed a week, that is a minor red flag. If a horse has missed two or more weeks (21 days or more between races), he should be avoided altogether. However, in the case of the shipper, the rules on layoffs can be relaxed, since you should work under the assumption that the horse is fit and ready for the race. But it is not advisable to place a bet on the horse if the layoff is more than 28 days — unless he put in a good qualifying race in the interim.

Another important factor is whether the horse is shipping from a major track to a minor track or vice versa. I have found that horses “shipping down” from a major track to a minor track often are good bets. Perhaps my favorite is the Meadowlands Racetrack to Freehold Raceway shipper. These shippers often seem to win regardless of the SR. In addition, horses “shipping down” from Hoosier Park tend to be good bets. However, horses shipping from Pompano Park rarely win the first time out. (Perhaps they need a few weeks to become acclimated to the cooler climate).

Horses going from minor tracks to major tracks should be avoided. I have seen many examples of horses finishing up the track when shipping from a minor Ontario track to Woodbine or Mohawk, even if the horse had the top SR.

Another helpful tool to use when evaluating shippers is the replay of the horse’s last race. This is a good tool under any circumstances, but especially in the case of a shipper. If the horse shows breaks on a bigger track, he should be avoided if shipping to a smaller track. On the other hand, if he shows a break on a smaller track, perhaps you can overlook them if he’s shipping to a bigger track, because of the milder turns.

When watching the replay, observe how the horse handled the turns. If he had difficulty handling the turns on a bigger track, it is safe to assume that he will have more trouble with the turns on the smaller track. Also, take into account the horse’s size. If he is a big horse, he may be better-suited for a bigger track with its milder turns.

One of my favorite horses this year is the handsome brown gelding Talldarknhandsome. As the name suggests, he is a big horse. He raced at Monticello and Saratoga—both half-mile tracks—then was shipped to Plainridge Park, a five-eighths-mile track with milder turns. I placed a winning bet on him, sometimes with decent prices, in four of five starts at Plainridge. He even set a lifetime mark of 1:52.3 at age 9.

As you can see, evaluating shippers is a murky endeavor. But this does not mean that shippers should be summarily dismissed. On the contrary, if you evaluate the factors discussed above, and really get the hang of it, betting on shippers could potentially expand your portfolio of winning wagering opportunities.

To see more from the September 2017 issue of Hoof Beats, click here.

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