Between The Lines: Handicapping in the winter months

by Brett Sturman

This weekend ushers in an early blast of winter. Temperatures at both the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, NJ and Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto will be hovering around 25 degrees F Saturday, and just like that cold-weather racing is upon us.

From a handicapping standpoint, one must consider what differences (if any) winter weather has on the way races are run.

I spoke to New Jersey-based trainer Mike Russo on the subject as he’s a trainer that has enjoyed winter success at the Meadowlands the last couple of seasons. From November 2015 to March of the following year, Russo was fourth at the Meadowlands in wins and from the same time period the following year, he was fifth.

In Russo’s opinion, horses are naturally suited to racing in the cold to begin with. “I don’t think there’s too many differences between a horse racing in the winter and racing in other times of the year, and there’s only a marginal difference in speed in how fast the horses go,” Russo said.

As a handicapper, one of the things I often consider is how long a horse can hold its current form. Conventional wisdom might be to think that horses go on and off form in the winter more often than in summer as there can be weather-related interference to training schedules, but Russo sees it as quite the opposite.

“They definitely can carry their form in the winter,” he said. “I actually find it’s worse the other way for them because there are horses that are susceptible to allergies in the warmer months. I find it tougher to carry really good form winter into the summer than I do from the warmer months into the colder months.

“In the winter, they’re not really affected like people. Some people may think that, but I know people that don’t use winter blankets on horses and they’re never sick. I also know people who do the opposite and those horses can be just as susceptible to being sick. I think the wind or a draft might get a horse sick, but it would be that more-so than the cold itself.”

As for training routines to ensure horses stay fit, “I would say that I probably do more training even than usual when its colder out. I normally train every week leading up to a race but I’ll train them more in the cold and then I may back off a bit as it gets warmer out. Unless it’s bitter cold and I think there’s an issue where the horse may bleed, I’m not really going to alter my schedule that much.”

For these reasons, it seems as if handicappers have it worse than the horses when it comes to winter racing. While the horses have been built to adapt for the cold conditions, the winter elements can wreak havoc with traditional handicapping methods.

Times will be a tick slower than usual based on the cold weather alone, but conditions such as wind can make horses fractional times and final times dramatically misleading.

In a normal warm day, it’s possible track conditions can of course change throughout the day, meaning a 1:50 time in race 1 may have been accomplished over different circumstances than a 1:50 time in race 9, but generally speaking times on the same day are comparable.

In the winter however, a 35-mph wind gust may have been present for one race, but may have dissipated by the very next race. This makes trying to determine how fast or slow a track was playing on a given night increasingly difficult.

Winds in the winter conditions also impact those horseplayers that relay on opening or final fractions. A horse that normally paces a final quarter in 28 seconds may only pace his final quarter of a mile in :30 if there is a strong headwind in the stretch, or conversely may pace a much faster than usual quarter if the wind is at his back. Looking at fractional times in these situations are only good if the handicapper knows the environmental dynamics behind it, such as wind velocity and direction during the given race.

In these situations, a handicapper with this knowledge at hand will be at a superior advantage than the person handicapping strictly on numbers in the program alone.

In typical winter conditions, Russo doesn’t think that any one horse generally has an advantage over others. “I think the weather effects all the horses equally for the most part. Obviously, some could be affected differently but it shouldn’t be a major factor. The horses kind of condition themselves and most of them have been through this stuff. If you’re talking about a hard track or bitter cold then that may have more of an impact but in your standard run-of-the-mill cold weather there shouldn’t be much difference.”

Handicappers, like trainers, are often forced to leave the way a race shakes out up to the drivers in any type of race condition. “The drivers are all talented and they don’t need you to say don’t do this, or don’t be first over,” said Russo. “I always want my horse to race the way it races best and not let the weather dictate how they race.”

For those of us playing any of winter tracks it should be comforting to know that the colder temperatures don’t impact the horses or the racing as much as one would think. But paying attention to wintry specifics for each race – intangibles that can’t always be found in the program – is something that will help give a clear edge in winter racing.