A very now and again I find myself wondering about some of the so-called “experts” in the racing game. The most recent example came with the voting for Horse of the Year. Makybe Diva was, of course, voted horse of the year, and I suppose it is within the possibilities of imagination that somebody, somewhere thought that she was not.

I find it virtually impossible to imagine who that person could be, or how he or she could come to the conclusion that some other horse came even remotely close to what the wonder mare achieved, but that’s nothing compared to the absolute contempt you have to feel for the next lot of so-called experts.

A small handful actually voted for something else as Stayer of the Year.

You really should read that again.  Somebody in Australia voted for another horse, in front of Makybe Diva, as our stayer of the year! Now really, what kind of assessment are we dealing with here? You win the BMW, the Cox Plate, and the Melbourne Cup for the third time, and you are not the best stayer in Australia? I rank this amongst the most astonishing pieces of misinformation I have ever come across in racing. It almost defies belief.

Well, having presented that as my starting point, let me get down to business. The distance that a horse has to cover in a race is going to determine how the horse runs.  Some horses sprint, some horses stay.  Some manage both.  Some can sprint, and stay a little. The vast majority give themselves away as soon as you look at them. The big shouldered blokes are generally the sprinters.  The lithe, skinny ones are most likely to be stayers.  That is a generalisation of course, but if you think about the marvellous Kenyan and Ethiopian runners that we often see winning the big marathon races, and if you think further about the big masterly types that win the hundred metres, you will get my drift.

I have never laid claim to being able to judge a horse from the mounting yard. I have the greatest respect for those who can do it but I can’t.  I can appreciate a beautiful horse, and I think most racegoers can do that.  At times, however, I can be swayed by an elegant chestnut with perhaps that white flash or blaze, whereas it is quite possible that the insignificant bay standing immediately behind him is the faster horse. I wear my shortcoming in that regard and I make up for it with a lot of study.  Just as you can learn to do, I know who can stay and who can sprint.

One of the biggest problems comes in races over 1600 metres or so. Run the race a certain way, and a sprinter can grab it. Run it another way, and the stayers will finish all over the top of the speedy squibs. And so year in year out, races like the Epsom and the Doncaster, especially with large fields, can be extremely deceptive.  There have been years when fantastic staying horses like Super Impose have dominated these events, and there have been other years when sprinters such as Citius and her ilk have been able to get away with big miles.

Starting at the shorter end of things, readers will know that I have a very strong dislike of any race shorter than 1200 metres. This is essentially because the slightest mistake on the part of a rider, or for that matter the slightest difficulty of any kind, and your horse is history. 

I do not believe that short of 1200 metres, which is three quarters of a mile in old terms, one should lay a bet. I make one exception to that: this is on a straight track such as Flemington, when the form is exposed. Sometimes it is quite possible to strike a good bet in races such as this, particularly if your horse draws the rails barrier. The advantage of the rails in a very short distance race cannot be overemphasised, and it is even more so in a straight race.

Some of you might think that the advantage would be greater going round a corner, and in some circumstances you might possibly be right. However, to my way of thinking, a speedster with the advantage of a direction finder such as the rail, where his simple job is to jump and run like hell, can really get the drop on the field. Anyway, outside of that, I do not believe that it is worth investing on anything under the 1200 metre mark. Even at 1200 metres, I am a bit wary. In all probability the pace will still be on all the way, and once again the risk of a slight error is all it takes. I really like to come in at the 1400 metres.

If you choose not to bet below 1400 metres, you move into an entirely different set of circumstances. The races are run at a different tempo and it is not unusual to see horses which perform better at longer distances coming back from a spell at the 1400 metre mark. They can win at 1400 metres, if they are really tuned up.  Because of the different tempo of a 1200 metres race (and of course the simple fact that it is 200 metres shorter), they are very unlikely to even get into the event. 

I recall telling you recently that this was something I was taught by the great Bart Cummings many years ago. Watch his staying horses resume. You will get the message. When most stayers resume, they are likely to perform at 1400 metres. I don’t think anybody would waste their money with a stayer in a shorter distance than that, but a fresh top-class horse at the seven furlongs mark has always been my idea of a fair sort of bet if I am offered great odds.

The 1500 metre mark is another interesting distance. It is remarkable to acknowledge that some horses cannot win at 1400 metres and yet they can win at 1500 metres at other tracks. It is where you have to bring your understanding of the tracks into play. As an example, horses can win at Rosehill over 1500 metres and not manage the 1400 metres at Randwick.

I have never quite understood why they are able to win at the larger Eagle Farm over 1400 metres and yet not put in when they are tried over the Doomben 1350 metres. It’s one of those imponderables that you have to learn, and then to live with. For this reason, one of the ultimate criteria in race betting, a rule that you should never break, is to know what you’re doing so far as a horse’s ability to handle a track is concerned.

On this subject, you will find that there are horses like the evergreen Dandy Kid that absolutely relish certain tracks such as Moonee Valley, and they rack up a string of victories on a particular circuit. One of life’s little ironies is that these horses often start at the most astounding odds on those particular tracks.

I have a very fond memory of backing Dandy Kid some time last year at 8/1 when he went for the record at the Valley. It was a very sweet race and it was over at the turn. I wish they were all that easy to read before the horses jump!

When we get to the 1600 metres, or one mile, distance mark, things begin to shift quite dramatically.  You have the horses which on the right day at the right time are going to get the mile, assuming that the race is not run at absolute breakneck speed. Then you also have the horses which, if the race is run at breakneck speed, will come home like the proverbial Bondi tram and blow everything away.

But there is a third group at this distance which can be a real moneyspinner for you if only you can identify them. Vroom Vroom comes to mind as a potential for this new season. Court’s In Session was another. These horses have a remarkable capacity to kick along at a high cruising speed, not enough to break themselves but high enough to dissuade most challengers from taking them on. They continue to kick right along at that high cruising speed all the way and by the time they reach the final hundred metres or so, it is perfectly apparent that nothing behind them is going to beat them unless it is able to crack the track record.

Timing in this regard is everything and for this reason, never leave the job to an inexperienced apprentice or a jockey you do not totally trust.  You will nevertheless find good apprentices who are more than capable of carrying out the task (in my lifetime experience Malcolm Johnston was the best ever, whilst recently I developed a huge regard for Jay Ford). The saying goes that they have “a stopwatch in their heads”. They know how to do it exactly right. Interestingly, some of the best and most successful jockeys in the land almost never ride front running races. Now I come to think about that, I wonder why it is.

Anyway, 1600 metres is quite a challenge to unravel but I will tell you another thing I have noticed about it. It seems to me to be the exquisite distance as far as a racehorse is concerned.  It seems the distance at which handicaps, more than any other, do not create a level playing field. By this I mean that highly weighted horses should not be disregarded in anything at the mile. When you look through the records, horses can carry the weight at this distance.

I am simply putting this to you as something I have observed over the years. Perhaps also it could be because so many very good races are run at the distance. Perhaps the best horse often ends up winning the best race. I don’t have the figures to back me up here, so it cannot be anything other than a feeling I have developed over the years. Nonetheless, I am at my happiest when I am backing a highly-weighted and track-proven horse at 1600 metres in a good-quality race.

When we extend over further than 1600 metres, we start heading towards the area of the stayer.  I think it’s fair to say that once you get up to 2000 metres, which we tend to call a “middle-distance”, we are examining horses in terms of their ability to “get a distance”. It’s quite true that some of them can’t get any further than this, and yet they are incapable of winning a mile race. They usually turn out to be one-paced animals but nonetheless prove themselves capable of winning a couple of races each year and paying their way. Put them over 2400 metres and they fold up.

Frankly, this kind of horse should be avoided by any punter. If they cannot win at a mile, and a mile and a half is too far, they are not my idea of a bet. Basically, this is because unless the race is run absolutely to plan, they will find some way of being beaten. If it is run hard all the way, they will fold up as I said above, whereas a soft race will probably see a mile horse hang on and beat them.

So to the stayers. One of the most deceptive areas of staying is to accept, on face value, any Derby winner. Interestingly, and I have no idea why, it does appear that an Oaks winner is more likely to continue as a stayer and make a career for herself. The number of Derby winners that simply don’t go on with it is astonishing.  There have been one or two which have come back as absolutely sensational sprinters. The lesson to be learnt is that an exceptionally good three-year-old male is probably just that: he is capable of beating the best at his age level provided he gets the right run, regardless of the distance.  That’s about the closest I can come to explaining what I have always found to be a bit of an enigma.

Stayers kick in at about 2200 metres, and by 2400 metres we have the serious types. We do not have any major races on the flat for stayers any further than 3200 metres. In other words, distances from a little bit under 1½ to two miles establish our criteria for stayers. And so we come to the next interesting point. Horses which can run quite strongly over 2400 metres often get a stitch by the time they are up to 2800 metres, and at the two mile point they just fall in a hole. It is always easy to delete at least half the field, maybe more, on simple logic from every Melbourne Cup, the day after it is run.

I suppose we could argue that it is easy to throw out 23 horses at that stage, but of course that isn’t what I meant at all. What I’m getting at here is that the Melbourne Cup, at 3200 metres, is going to stop most of our racehorses simply because the race is too far. One of the most intriguing things about this race, perhaps the most challenging to selectors like myself, is to try to project the likelihood of a horse actually getting the distance. It’s far more important as a basic examination point of reference than possibly anything else in the race.

You see, there are so few races run at this distance that in most cases (apart from the arrivals from New Zealand and further away) we just don’t have the information we need. If we know anything at all about their ability to run the distance, the information may be at least one year old (that is to say, it will come from the previous Melbourne Cup). Of course Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney, along with Perth, will all run their 3200 metre cups, but with the recent exception of Makybe Diva (and let’s face it, she is both a champion and a freak), none of those races seems to have counted for much over the past several years.

So, to summarise, I think the ideal distances for a punter are probably 1400 metres, some 1600 metre events, and then near 2400 metres. Within these distance ranges you will get various kinds of horses but you will have the greatest chance of being able to identify what they can do at these specific trips.  Add to this the fact that you are very likely to be able to see your horse have a reasonably clear run, and you have a few things going for you. If the distance is any shorter than 1400 metres, you have questions that really are imponderables. In other words you are guessing.

After 2400 metres, you are again entering the realms of the guess. Needless to say, we will have a shot at the Melbourne Cup, and since it is the only 3200 metres race of absolute top class that is run in Australia during the year, I don’t see that as any sort of a bad thing.

Like you, I will have a crack at the big one, but using my head rather than my heart I expect I will probably do better most years at the distances I have nominated above: 1400, 1600 and 2400.

By The Optimist