THE ARRIVAL of Buffalo Raceway's winter meet threw the Happy Handicapper into his usual cauldron of mixed emotions.
Has he really aged 19 years since harness racing stopped being a summer sport? Isn't it dumb to even try to handicap horses when you have to deal with wind and weather?
Is it morally wrong to duck out of a Christmas party to catch the late double? Has there ever been a slice of pizza worth the $1.75 that the Raceway concession stands now charge? When the State Police advise "no unnecessary travel" are they really talking about South Park Avenue?
And, of course, the most important question of all: Is this the winter he finally nails these babies?
Over the years, the H.H. has developed several theories on how to beat the winter meet. A few have even clicked for some nice payoffs. To refresh his memory, which has grown somewhat porous, he went back over his notes and found the following.
30-somethings: Winter meet harness horses that pace or trot the final quarter of a mile in less than 31 seconds -- usually in '30-something' times of 30 1/5 , 30 2/5 etc. -- frequently win their next race.
Any horse that can race three-quarters of a mile and still have enough energy left to post an above-average time (for the seasonal conditions) in the last quarter is an animal to be reckoned with. This angle seems especially strong, and leads to better payoffs, if you apply it to horses that lost while turning in a 30-something time. (Final-quarter times are listed in the past performances in the program.)
A number of candidates for future play popped up already on opening night last Wednesday. Freddie's Skipper, a 13-1 shot driven by Don Rothfuss, paced a 30-second final quarter in posting a 3 1/4 -length win in an $8,000 claiming contest clocked in an impressive 2:00 3/5 . He was followed by Ed McNeight Jr.'s Adadot, whose final quarter was clocked in 30 4/5 .
Bando Scarlet, with Tom Swift in the sulky, also came home in 30 seconds in a $5,000 claimer timed in 2:03 4/5 . Four horses behind him also cracked 30-something: Sal T Collins, Overdrive Blu, Antiquity and P.D. Ford.
Repeaters: Winter time frequently seems to be win-streak time. Horses tend to stay in shape longer when the weather gets miserable.
Last winter, trainer Mary Ann Sarama's Baldero won six straight. Sandy Glair's Deputy Chief and Inherit the Crown, the Barsuk family's nice trotter, each won five straight. Karen Clark's Coalminer Daughter and Brenda Ohol's Toey's Fritz took four in a row.
In past winters, the H.H. has had success playing a system first taught him by Professor Ron Roblin of Buffalo State College. The method basically says to play a pacer that won its last race if it is returning within 15 days, not moving up more than two steps in class, has a win percentage this year of at least 15 percent, has Post Five or better, and goes off at 7-1 or less. It sounds like a lot to deal with, but it takes only a few minutes once you get the hang of it.
Snow-goers: Some horses seem to relish the cold and snow. (Speaking of relish, did you notice the price of a Raceway hot dog went from $1.35 to $1.45?) Since the temperature from each night's races is printed in the past performance lines, it's not that hard to spot them. Free Will GB, for instance, won twice in 10-degree weather.
Other horses that won last December when the mercury fell to 10 degrees or lower include: Argyle Kitty, Blazing Tiger, Carnival Cruise, Deputy Chief, Fred Bret, Jennifer Fiacco, Majority Rules, Master Builder, Model T Collins, Nardalator, Shon's Style, Show Vanistic, Stranger In Town, Sushi Girl, Township Eric, Township Fantasy and Windsong T Collins.
Key Races: What you do is look at the results of each night's races and figure out which race had what the H.H. calls the fastest 'total speed time.' That's the time you get when you add together the times of both the first half and the finish of the mile. (A 2:05 mile in which the first half was timed in 1:03 would be rated at 3:08.)
Then you write down the name of the winner of that key race, plus the names of the other horses which finished within eight lengths. Next time any one of those horses races, jump on it. (On opening night, the key race was the sixth, with a total speed time of 3:00. The first two horses -- Freddie's Skipper and Adadot -- were the only qualifiers).
Winter Wonders: Some trainers seem to specialize in winter winners. They divide their stock into winter and summer specialists and then crack down this time of year. Last year's best winter trainer was Dan Guindon, who scored 17 winners in 75 starts. Then came Dennis Cummings and Steve Flanigen (16 each), Al Mariacher (15), and Tom Agosti and John Leggio (13 each). Agosti, Leggio, Cummings, Bob Gruber and Mike Grieco Jr. led the percentage standings.
Names to Remember: The Winter Championship Series -- known in some circles as the "Freezer's Crown" -- highlights the final weekend each February as the best horses in each class race for double the ordinary purse money. Last year's winners included Eagle Hawk, Inherit The Crown, Malady's Magic, Overnite Guy, Tyler Lobell, Baldero, Davric Playboy, Deputy Chief and HR's No Nonsense.
And even though final times don't mean too much in a meet that faces drastic varieties of wind and weather, you should remember that last winter's fastest paces were turned in by: Ledder Hosen (1:59 1/5 ), Toey's Fritz (1:59 4/5 ); Just Possible (2:00) and Must B Precious (2:00 1/5 ). The trotters were dominated by Inherit The Crown (2:04 4/5 , 2:05 1/5 and 2:06) and Rubys Thunder (2:05 1/5 and 2:05 3/5 ).