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Betting horses off layoffs and qualifiers

One of the major differences between harness racing and Thoroughbred racing is the importance of the layoff. In the Thoroughbred sport, it is not unusual for a horse to win after a 2-3 month layoff. But in harness racing, horses generally must qualify if they have gone 30 or more days without a purse race. This, in my opinion, is fairer to the horseplayer.

In my March 2017 column, titled “Chart Your Biases,” I recommended tracking variables and correlating them to the $2 win price. I started this in 2009, and one of the variables I tracked was “layoff” or days since last race. After analyzing more than 1,000 races, I discovered the following:

The “index” (or Return on Investment plus 1.00) dropped significantly if the layoff exceeded nine days. Layoffs over 14 days–with some exceptions–were bad bets.

Short layoffs – perhaps two or three days – were great bets. At first, this may sound counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t the horse need the typical seven-day layoff, like a starting pitcher usually needs four days rest between starts? Apparently not, because the Standardbred horse is a hardy animal.

For years, I followed those guidelines, and relished the short layoff, and stayed clear of the long layoff. I tracked layoffs again, but because I often bet short layoffs, and avoided longer layoffs, the index was roughly the same, regardless of layoff.

But one particular bet was a winner in 2009, 2017, and for that matter, 1972 – horses off a strong qualifier. In 2017, I made 71 such wagers, winning 34, with an index of 1.104. I have done better in some previous years.

While in no way am I complaining, it has surprised me that this has always been such a good bet. Perhaps bettors think that qualifiers are just practice races – which they are. But the teletimer doesn’t lie, and horses rarely go all-out in qualifiers.  So if the race figures to go in 1:53, and there is a horse who qualified in 1:54, he may very well be worth a wager. This is particularly true if the horse in the qualifier cut the mile or roughed it for a while on the outside.

One scenario in which a good qualifier may not be such a great wager is the habitual breaker. If a horse breaks in two consecutive races, he is usually forced to qualify. In such instances, you must weigh the risk of a break against the good qualifier, and it is not a bad idea to skip the race. However, if the horse changed trainers and/or added or removed hobbles for the qualifier, he may be worth a longer look.

Another scenario which I will address is a horse coming off a scratch sick, lame, or injured. Such horses, as Herman’s Hermits might say, are a must to avoid. They rarely win, and are usually an underlay when they do. However, if the scratch was a judge’s scratch, a transportation scratch, or a scratch “personal,” you should consider them.

Note I said “guidelines,” not “rules” when it comes to layoffs. There are certainly some exceptions: The most significant exception is the shipper. The 14-day guideline can be relaxed, perhaps to 21 days. As a matter of fact, one of my highest-priced horses in 2017 was a shipper from the Meadowlands to Freehold. He had a 19-day layoff, and paid $46.20.

Another thing to look at is the layoffs of the other horses in the race. If the horse you liked has a 14-day layoff, that could be a red flag, especially if the other horses all had seven-day layoffs. But if the entire field had 14-day layoffs, this is probably because there was no race carded for this particular class the previous week, and if this is the case, go ahead and place your wager.

Here is another scenario in which a horse skips a week through no fault of his own: if he was entered in a race, but couldn’t get in because too many horses were entered in the same race. When this happens, priority is given to the horses with the longest layoff, and if many horses had the same layoff, the horses which get in the race are determined by the luck of the draw. It would be nice if this information would be made available to the general public, but as of now, it is not.

Last, but not least, some trainers are specialists at winning after a layoff. This information is available on Trackmaster ™ Platinum Plus past performances. Look for the “Layoff” line at the bottom of the trainer’s section near the top of the page.

by Bob Gardner

To see inside the January 2018 edition of Hoof Beats, click here.

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