My goal for January was to become conversant about harness racing.

The vast majority of my racing exposure has been thoroughbreds.  Growing up, the only races I ever watched were the Triple Crown.  I eventually realised that there was more to racing than a few big three-year-old races in May and June.  Eventually, the racing bug bit me.  Eventually, I learned there was live thoroughbred racing in Chicago most of the year.

Thoroughbred racing is my passion, but it has always seemed a bit arbitrary that it was the type of horse racing I got into.  Horses are horses, after all.  A standardbred, a quarter horse, an Arabian…no matter what breed the horse was, they would be able to coax mints and pets from me just as easily.  It just so happened thoroughbred racing was what I was exposed to on TV, and at my local racetracks.

Ricky Bobbie warms up before his race at Hawthorne on January 16, 2016.

I have learned bits and pieces about other kinds of horse racing.  I have picked up a few things about the quarter horses from the #LosAlCrew on Twitter, and I took a few Sunday night swings in quarter horse contests back when DerbyWars was legal in Illinois.

I had never taken a swing at a standardbred race until April, when everyone at Hawthorne seemed to be trying their hand at a high-five carryover.  Somehow, I cobbled together a winning ticket based on the analysis of others, and to this day it remains the only signer I have ever hit.

I finally saw standardbred racing live for the first time this summer, when a few of my non-racing friends asked me if I wanted to go with them to Maywood on a Friday night.  As a night out, it was a blast.  Though we failed miserably at the windows, we got to see horses.  We had fun drinking gin and tonics and making our best guesses.

Still, it caught me off guard to be at a racetrack so close to home…but have no idea what was going on.

When Hawthorne got January harness dates, I set a goal to use that month to become conversant in harness racing.  I didn’t know enough to figure out quite what “conversant” meant, other than being able to read through past performances and be able to apply some logic when trying to pick a winner.  Since I handicap thoroughbreds so often, that seemed like a good starting point.

We are now over halfway through this harness meet at Hawthorne.  I would not yet call myself conversant, but I am picking up bits and pieces.

A few familiar things seem to hold.  Trainer and driver statistics matter, just like trainer and jockey statistics in thoroughbred.  Horses for the Hawthorne course are beginning to emerge…maybe.  Why Ask Why has adored the course.  Hrubys N Luck loves it, though he loves the outer rail even more than Adelaide did in the Secretariat last year.  (Seriously — he is a perfect 3-3 at the Hawthorne meet, but also a perfect 3-3 in drifting out.)  Of course, given the bounds of statistical significance, it will be hard to have enough trials for that angle to mean much until the longer meet this summer.  Still, it is enough to start giving longer-priced horses a look if they have fired some good efforts over the Stickney/Cicero oval.

Class seems to matter.  I don’t know the pecking order of other harness tracks yet, but purse level changes have been steering me in a decent direction.  If a horse is running for a bit lower purse, I give them an extra look.  I am still learning harness conditions, and have therefore been a little adrift parsing that, but I get the feeling that digging up interesting condition book plays is a good way to identify horses, no matter what breed.  I get frustrated when the claiming races say “with allowances”, and it seems high time to take another look at the condition sheet and see if I can make a bit more sense of it than I could in December.

In the closest thing to maiden races that the Hawthorne meet seems to have, the non-winners of one extended pari-mutuel1, liking relatively lightly-raced horses hasn’t led me too far astray — cases in point, Backwoods Barbie and Big Footed Butch.  To be fair, that squares well with thoroughbreds — at least it’s documented.  I have dug up enough Illinois fair racing to know their thoroughbred results don’t show up on Equibase or thoroughbred PPs — looking at you, Hotpepper Please!  I still don’t have much of a handle on maiden or maiden-esque harness races, but this at least nudges me toward live ones.

The one thing that seems to be slightly more useful in harness than in thoroughbred is raw race time.  I do not look closely at times for thoroughbred races, though I leave open the possibility that I have not figured out how best to leverage them.  However, given that just about all harness races are a mile, and they race just about every week anyway, I have used times similarly to how I have used speed figures on thoroughbred racing.  I leave open the possibility that I will go back in six months, a year, or five, and find that this is the stupidest thing I have ever said in my life.  This still seems overly simplistic, given that I know tracks can play differently on different days, even at the same distances.  But, it has been a decent enough way to set aside generally slower horses that I am using it for now.  It is quite similar to how I use figures in thoroughbred — I do not live and die by them, but I look for general trends.  If some horse in a race has generally better or worse times than the others over the same track, that matters to me.

The one aspect of harness racing that continues to confound me is pace.  In thoroughbred racing, I am a pace handicapper more than anything else.  I am still not sure how pace relates to handicapping harness.  That pattern, the importance of pace, has not yet jumped out at me.  More than anything, that is why I still feel adrift when attempting to handicap harness races.

All in all, I am enjoying getting to know harness racing.  I am still as new as it gets, and do not feel quite comfortable with it yet.  I may look back at this piece in a few years and laugh at myself for what I think matters now.  That would be no surprise.  After all, I look at some of my early thoroughbred handicapping and laugh at its naïvete.

Still, I am glad I am giving harness racing a shot.  I don’t think I would have given it such a try unless Hawthorne had this winter meet, and it has been fun to start learning another game full of horses.

1 The extended pari-mutuel rule means that horses who have won a qualifier (basically a “practice” race in the morning, and a non-betting affair) or a fair race (since fair meets are recorded and wagered on, but not considered “extended” meets) can run.


  1. Hi Nicolle,
    Here are some pointers about the trotters.
    1. In regards to driver/trainer stats, a good driver is more important than a good jock is in Thoroughbred racing.
    2. The horse for course angle isn’t really as strong in harness racing. Some horses get around mile tracks better than a five-eighths or half mile track, but for the most part the surfaces are all limestone and don’t really vary as much as thoroughbred surfaces. The horses who are doing very well at Hawthorne are just probably in good form right now for whatever reasons. When they race week in and week out, they round in and out of form.
    3. The class levels will come with time. Looking at claiming races “with allowances”, the allowances are allowances in the claiming price. For example, if you have a $10,000 claiming race, and you enter a 2 year old filly, she gets a 100% allowance, meaning her claiming price would be $20,000. All they do is vary the horse’s claiming price, that’s it. Nothing to worry about handicapping wise.
    4. You’re correct about the way harness racing has their maiden classes, always NW1 parimutuel or NW X$. There are some tracks that just write Maiden, but they are the minority. Harness racing fair tracks are always charted and included in the PPs, so you don’t have to worry about that like with the Tbreds who race at the Illinois fairs.
    5. I used raw time a lot when I was beginning with the harness and you’re right, it is more useful than with the Tbreds. You’ll pick up on how the final times vary, half mile tracks like Maywood will have slower times than Hawthorne, 4 turns are slower than 2. Looking at final 1/4 times is also a solid angle. A horse who can finish fast is a good horse to have. Final 1/4 times are beside the final time in your PPs.
    6. Pace is tough but it’s very important. It’s tough to explain because it varies between gait, age, track size. Luckily since all the races are a mile it can be easier to figure out than the big variable paces of Tbred racing. Pay attention to the splits though.
    Hope this helps!

    1. thank you so much for this, Doug. i appreciate so much that you took the time to explain this…you have far more exposure to harness than i do, and this is really helpful as far as contextualising these factors.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.