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Harness Handicapping: Breaking

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Eb Netr

July 10th, 2013

When a horse breaks stride - fails to maintain a pace or trot, depending on which type of race it is - you can hear the crowd give a collective cry of disappointment. If it's the favorite, it's a louder cry, but even if it's a longshot, someone laments that their runner has been knocked out of the race.

The rule is that, when a horse breaks stride, the driver has to rein it in, get it back to pacing or trotting, and not gain ground doing it. The most important thing that drivers are expected to do is prevent their horse's break from impeding another horse or putting other horses and drivers in harm's way.

Many people mutter that drivers intentionally make their horses break stride, to throw the race, if it's the favorite. I don't think this happens often if at all. For one thing, it's very dangerous to have a horse break stride in a race, so the other drivers would probably have something to say if this actually happened. And they'd probably be able to tell.

Also, it's dangerous to the driver of the breaking horse. Trying to control a horse that wants to gallop from a flimsy, lightweight sulky with only two reins and your own strength isn't something any driver wants to do. The truth is that there are several reasons why horses break and the two most common ones involve the start and the turns.

When horses get behind the gate, they're not always settled completely into the gait they need to maintain. As they approach the gate, they have to adjust to a barrier appearing in front of them, to the other horses settling in around them, and to the increasing speed as the pace car leads them into the start. There's a lot going on and some horses have trouble dealing with all of this at once.

Add a touch of the whip on the saddle pad from their driver to get their attention and get them going, and some horses just get overwhelmed and forget what their legs are supposed to be doing. Of course, pacers have hopples. So, when their front foot pulls the hopple, the hopple pulls their hind foot and that keeps them pacing and makes it hard - but not impossible - for them to gallop.

This is why pacers break less often than trotters do. Trotters don't wear hopples, usually, so it's easier for them to break stride. They're almost famous for it. Even the best trotter will show a break, at some point, in its racing career. The really good ones though, have almost none. Young trotters are notorious for breaking. Even if they never have in their career, give them a race where there's a lot of speed and competition, or a post position that they don't take to, and they'll break when they're at 4-5 and take the crowd's hopes with them when they do.

I've seen it happen many times in sire stakes. The big favorite breaks stride and a longshot comes in and people start saying that the race was fixed and the horse was made to break. Not likely considering the purses in the sire stakes races or the time and training that trainers put into getting their young trotters ready for these races.

Turns are another place where horses are most liable to break, especially the tight turns on half-mile tracks. Some horses are a little knock kneed, or even very knock kneed, which makes it easy for them to hit their knees with their hooves, a very painful event.

If you've ever hit your knee on a coffee table, you'll know how the horse feels when this happens. It certainly knocks you off stride and you're not racing around a turn or pulling someone in a cart. Horses may hesitate when this happens and kind of forget which foot to put down next, and then go offstride. If they're on the outside, their driver can pull them to the outside of the turn.

But if they're on the inside, pandemonium can ensue as horses and drivers try to get out of the way of the galloping navigational hazard in their midst. If possible, the driver will pull the breaking horse through the pylons and onto the infield. If not, he'll try to rein it in and get it behind the other horses.

The first time I took my mother to a harness track, she was very disappointed by the whole thing. "Why don't they go as fast as they can, instead of making them trot and pace and go slower than a gallop?" she asked me. "What's the point in that?" And she went back to the thoroughbreds and greyhounds, never to darken a harness track again.

Some horses that break have the same attitude my mother had. When their driver makes them stay behind slower horses, they ask themselves why they shouldn't gallop and pass those stupid slow horses, and win the race. Harness horses know that they're competing, believe me. They want to get to the front and pass other horses.

Trotting and pacing come naturally to horses as they increase their speed, but when they get to a certain speed, it's also natural for them to break into a gallop. Only years of patient training and good breeding have bred horses that will let a driver overcome their impulse to do this. And once in a while, in the heat of a competitive race, they forget their training and just give it all they've got.

The best advice I can give you about how to play horses that break is - DON'T! If a horse has more than one break showing in its last six races, I wouldn't bet on it if you paid me to. And it has to be a very good horse for me to play it even if it only has one break.

I love watching trotters and like handicapping trots, but they break my heart and I make more money on paces. Only by playing the best trotting drivers and trainers and sticking with consistent, non-breaking trotters have I been able to more than break even playing the trotters.

I don't put very much money on trots with young horses either. I look for trainers that I know are good with young horses, good at training trotters and who have horses with good breeding for trots. And, even then, I bet sparingly and very few favorites. I prefer to find a horse at slightly longer odds with good early and late speed and a good post position. And, still, every so often, a horse that looks good will break and there goes my winning ticket.

So, if you want to catch a break at the harness track, don't bet horses that break. Play trotters only when they have everything going for them: good driver, good trainer, good post position and a fast track. Play young trotters at your own risk. You might want to stick with five-eighths and mile tracks also, because the corners aren't so tight and there's more room for horses that break to get out of the way. And, sooner or later, a horse will break.
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