When it comes to sprint or staying races, how do we decide which is the better medium or maybe which offers the better chances for punters?

One way of examining the overall situation is to have a look at the major tracks which will come to the fore in the spring. That means Caulfield, Flemington, Moonee Valley and Sandown in Melbourne and in Sydney we need to know something about Rosehill, Randwick, Warwick Farm and Canterbury.

The last couple of books written by Don Scott provide some good information about all of these tracks, although we might argue that some of the biases have changed over the past decade or so.

Scott, for example, was not able to provide up-to-date information with regard to Moonee Valley and its strathayt surface. There are other good books available to assist investors with regard to the leading southern tracks, among them Robert White's Courses for Horses, revised in 1998.

Over the years I have come across several of these track guides, but White's is definitely among the best guides that I have been able to find. His work on Melbourne is outstanding but take note that he seems to think the map of Australia stops at Canberra, so you won't get a thing on the Sydney or northern tracks.

Anyway, there is a stack of information available through one source or another, and my local newspaper has even taken to providing information on the quirks of the tracks as perceived by the premier riders at those tracks.

More important to the average investor is his selection's ability to actually cope with the distance, regardless of the track. I'm sometimes struck by how little regard punters have for a horse's ability to cope with the peccadilloes of a specific track: for example, a horse which has a sprint that doesn't last more than perhaps 50 metres is unlikely to be able to win a distance race at Flemington or Sandown, whereas at Moonee Valley, if the horse is well placed on the turn, it can kick, and because the entire straight is only 173 metres, the horse has a pretty fair chance of hanging on. Moonee Valley in fact reminds me more of a football field than a racetrack.

Flemington has an enormous straight, and Randwick and Sandown provide plenty of room and enough distance for the swoopers to fly home. Caulfield and Rosehill also offer space when the racing is fair dinkum and the rail in its proper place, but the opportunity to sit on the pace and slip the field at the 200 is, in my experience, a genuine option in many races that are run at these two tracks. If it rains at either of the last two mentioned, all bets are, literally, off! The only thing you can say with any degree of certainty if the heavens open on these tracks is that there is nothing to be said.

Canterbury absolutely demands a good barrier draw and the ability to sit on the pace. Simple as that.

One more comment is probably necessary, and that is that the best horses can overcome obstacles. For example, everyone old enough remembers the celebrated Cox Plate called by the late Bill Collins when he declared that Kingston Town could not win the race with about 200 metres to go. It is now history that Kingston Town did in fact win the race and decimated the opposition - but how could anybody have placed a dollar on him at the 200 metres? Champions can do anything. They break the rules.

So we pose the question, what distances should we focus on when we make our bets? I think the worst thing we can possibly do is to ignore distances and try to pick the winner of every race. We are far better advised to make a decision as to distances and to stick to our decision.

I have said over many years that it is, in all likelihood, easier to make money in the spring by restricting one's betting to races no further than 2000 metres. Furthermore, I do not believe that the shortest races, those of less than 1200 metres, are worthwhile propositions in virtually 100 per cent of the cases I have examined.

The trouble with very short races is that you only have to make the slightest miscalculation and you are out of business. It is almost impossible for a horse to recover from a minor knock in a race that is less than 1200 metres. It is bad enough at 1600 metres! In my view, after a lifetime of watching, thinking, investing, and generally making enough money to keep myself very satisfied with my racing investments, I'm convinced that the optimum distances, disregarding vagaries of tracks, range between 1400 and 2200 metres. I am prepared to go to 2500 metres if I am well aware of the track in the conditions, as for example might occur at Caulfield on Caulfield Cup day or at  Flemington on Derby day.

Note those conditions that I made: I need to be pretty sure of the track conditions on the day. If I'm betting pre-post, then of course I'm going to have to take a chance on such matters and I may even want to build in some extra insurance in the form of longer odds. I have become much more cautious about pre-post betting at Caulfield after having been badly burnt a few times in recent years, and any early bets that I take on the Caulfield Cup will have taken this factor into quite serious consideration.

I admit to not being absolutely sure as to the extent of increased odds I need to take into account, given the possibility that the weather will spoil my party, but I'll tell you this: I will never again forget to take this into my reckoning.

If we restricted ourselves to the distances I have suggested above, and if we wanted to be a little bit more selective, we would have plenty of action between 1400 metres and, say, 2200 metres. That would knock out the cups and the three-year-old classics, and arguably this is not such a bad thing if we are really concerned with making money through racing investments, as against simply backing the winners of the races which will appear in the headlines the next day.

That brings me to another realistic point. What is our primary reason for being in this game at all? just like you, I love to back the winner of the Melbourne Cup. I love to get a big double. I really feel pleased with myself if I can come up with half a dozen of the really big winners in the spring carnival.

But why don't we face facts here? The only races that we're excluding if we make the cut-off point 2200 metres, are the Colin Stephen, the Newcastle Gold Cup, the Metropolitan, the Herbert Power, the Caulfield Cup, the Moonee Valley Cup, the Victoria Derby, the SAAB, the Melbourne Cup, the VRC Oaks, the Queen Elizabeth, and the Sandown Classic (a.k.a. Cup).

While this seems like an enormous number of top-class races, it really is only a very small number of the top Group races which are run over the next few months. The total number of Group events run over the same period of time is still around 80 races.

If we knock out the ones that are less than 1400 metres, we would lose less than 20 races. So over the whole carnival period, you probably have access to about 50 Group races and that's by not starting until September and finishing with the Sandown Classic before the middle of November.

Doing a little more calculation, we can pretty quickly work out that we come up with more than enough races to keep us all perfectly happy right through the period. For all that, the question of whether you can restrict yourself to an established set of distances continues to stare you in the face. You are the only person on earth who can answer that question.

The other way of dealing with distances is to focus more on the horse than on the distance, and to identify horses as sprinters, middle-distance horses, and stayers. The middle-distance horses probably have to be separated again into sprinter-milers and miler-middle-distance horses.

Generally speaking, we're talking about horses which look for somewhere to lie down after they have run 1200 to 1250 metres. They must be our sprinters. Otherwise known as turbocharged, but sometimes derisively called speedy squibs.

Our second bunch logs in around 1200 metres when they are fresh, and are at their top somewhere around a mile to 2200 metres. As you can see, as every racing person knows, some of them simply won't get the 2200 while others will show their best form above the mile. The genuine stayers may show something when they are fresh, but then they are likely to run with the pack until they get into a middle-distance range.

Nobody is saying that all this isn't tricky, but with the kind of information we have available now, these facts are all available. There is no way, for example, that if you look up the form of a horse such as Falvelon, you will think that he is anything but a sprinter. And there is no way if you look up the form of, say, Northerly, you will back him at either 1000 metres or 3200 metres.

To use one more example, when you look up any decent formguide, you expect these days to be provided with the horse's range of wins, so far as distances are concerned. If you look at my Class and Assessment pages, you'll find the minimum and maximum distances at which those 94 horses have been successful. A reasonable system for commencing operations might make, as its first rule, that the horse to qualify must have won at the distance of today's race.

Much of what we have been through here may not be new to you, but perhaps if you were to think about your successes and failures at this time last year, the actual winners that you supported might start flashing neon lights at you. It could be that virtually all the winners you backed last spring ran at distances below, say, 1800 metres.

As we all know, things can change from year to year, and the fact that you did this last year might not have much bearing on what you are able to do this year. But if you have a hard think about it all, and it becomes apparent that your selection process is much more effective for the sprinter-miler group than it is for the stayers, the final solution is probably in your hands. If you are prepared to gamble, as against invest, then you'll go on trying to pick the winners of every classic regardless of distance.

You won't win, of course. I often cross-reference my articles so that I don't say the same thing twice, and if you read Educating the Punter in this issue and take note of what I have to say about poker machines, you might agree with me about the old saying "a fool and his money are soon parted". You can't do it.

So maybe the best way of restricting betting is to identify the distances at which you perform best. To my mind, one of the most difficult things about racing investment is the ego thing. You have to completely forget whether some character who doesn't bet is going to ask if you backed the winner of the cup (whichever cup it makes no difference).

I'm the first to admit that when it comes to the Melbourne Cup I'll try to get the winner and I will outlay a disproportionate percentage of my betting bank on the exotics associated with this race. That is because the opportunity to make a real killing only comes around once a year, when everybody in the country is having a bet and when most of them do not even know who is running in the race until the day before.

I would like to be one of the investors who uses these millions of totally uninformed dollars in the pool, to apply to what I know about racing. As an investor, I cannot pass up this opportunity: I know that it is not easy, and that a 3200 metres race for 24 horses under handicap conditions is anything but the most obvious race of the year on which to outlay a disproportionate amount of my bank.

But even if I have decided that 1400m-2400m maximum is my fixed distance range, the extraordinary opportunity offered to me in this one big event with its enormous pools, made up largely of uninformed money, simply cannot be passed up.

By The Optimist