Harness Handicapping: Handicapping The Hambletonian
It's been 17 years since the Hambletonian ran heats and the final on the same day. This year, there will be three heats and the winner of the final heat will be the Hambletonian winner. This is the way that standardbreds used to race and, due to their durability, they were up to the task.
Now, heats rarely occur on the same day as a final. I can't think of any recent ones. This calls for a different kind of handicapping, and so does the fact that all horses in the Hambletonian will race without medication. Yup, no drugs. That has to have an impact on their performance. While some people think that it levels the playing field, I think they're wrong.Some horses can go off Lasix or Bute and race just as well without them. Some horses can't. It's a harsh reality to face if your horse is the one that loses its edge without medication in the second leg of the Harness Triple Crown. Some horses can handle racing twice in one day, due to the heats, also. Some horses can't.
Some of the flightier ones, like Royalty for Life, for instance, might benefit from the extra race. It might even settle them down a little and get them focused for the final heat. Others, the speedsters, might find that they don't have much left in the tank, especially if the first heat is a fast paced one.
I intend to watch the heats closely, looking for horses that still look fresh after the first heat. I want to see that they're still trotting with their head up, hooves high and no washy areas on their flanks or withers. I like horses that look like they're still working up to their best effort, not horses that look as if they're breathing hard and struggling to keep on stride.
When there are heats, sometimes it's better to look for a horse that hasn't won the previous eliminations, but has come in second or third, or even worse, but was close in lengths to the winner. Or for a horse that had a bad trip, but still closed in the final quarter with a decent time.
Post position is very important when horses are giving more effort than they have before. It's a lot easier to win your second heat if you're in the post you're most comfortable in, one that has an advantage at The Meadowlands, like the 5 or 6 post. Also, remember that winners of the elims get post positions 1 through 5.
Because of the heats, the Hambletonian is a race that has to be handicapped on the fly, so to speak. Until you've watched the heats, you'll have no idea what the pace scenario will be, or even the entrants in the final. So, plan to spend some time in front of your computer, watching the heats and the warmups and pay close attention to what's going on in the other races on the card, so that you can judge the track bias or lack of it.
If horses are winning on the front end, look for speed horses that can also close at the end, because they'll probably have more energy for their final heat. If it's closers, look for ones that are hard closers, because they're the ones that will be able to carry that closing ability through two heats.
The top three finishers in each heat will go on to the final, along with the fourth place finisher with the highest lifetime earnings. By the time the final rolls around, if you've watched the heats and the horses closely, you should be able to judge which of the finalists has the moxie to last to be first over the finish line in this historic race.