0ne thing that is constant in the world of punting is that we need to explore new angles to either enhance our selection process or improve our ability to eliminate losers. An angle that has been widely talked about is fitness.

It makes good sense to be investing only on horses that are fit and able to perform at their best. For any angle to be useful you must be able to develop a measure or guide that provides the desired result, in this case backing a fit horse. Fitness, whether it is a racehorse or human athlete, is developed by training for and participation in events against competitors.

Its performance during training and racing that identifies when a racehorse is fit and ready to give it’s all on the track. As most of us do not have access to information regarding the training performance of racehorses we need to develop ways of using the information available publicly to determine when a horse is most likely to be at peak fitness. The information I use is the career history of racehorses that is available free on a number of websites.

The first step is to understand the cycles in a horse's racing life. A quick glance over a horse's racing history will show periods of racing interspersed with periods of no racing known as spells. Each period of racing is known as a preparation and is not a set length of time for all horses. The time in racing is decided by the trainer depending on the perceived fitness of the horse as it competes in a string of races. Injury may shorten a preparation unexpectedly.

It's during this preparation (racing) period that we need to understand how a horse's fitness develops. Generally speaking when a horse commences the racing preparation it will not be at peak fitness but fit enough to be competitive in the race. It takes actual race competition for a horse to achieve peak fitness. Some horses race best when fresh and they are the exception rather than the rule. Upon starting to race, horses begin to increase in fitness with each race in which they compete. This improvement is unique to each horse and the races being contested. This is the fitness improvement phase.

Once a horse reaches peak fitness it may stay there for a number of runs. This peak fitness phase again cannot be generalised at an exact number of runs and is particular to each horse. After this phase, fitness begins to decline until the trainer decides his horse is no longer competitive and it is spelled. Sometimes a horse may be given a short break instead of a spell and this may be enough to freshen the horse and produce some more good runs.

During each preparation we have the three phases, fitness improvement, peak fitness and declining fitness. It's useful to know which phase a horse is in before deciding to make an investment. You may have selected the horse with the most ability in the field, but if it's currently in the first or third phase, it may not be ready to perform at its best level. I personally attempt to identify the fitness phase and use this as a filter on my selections to reduce the level of risk.

I only invest on horses that in my opinion will reach their peak or are already at their peak level of fitness for today's race. In other words they are ready to win.

To determine the phase of fitness a horse is currently in, I study the history or pattern within the previous preparations. The identification of patterns is a simple but effective way of getting a feel for when a horse should be fit using starts from a spell as our guide.

Some people use ratings attached to each run to identify improvement in the runs and watch for when the ratings reach the same level as the peak in the last preparation. This involves having each race in the history rated, something that the average punter may not have.

For simplicity, I use the finishing position of the horse in its various races, looking for how many starts from a spell the horse generally hits winning form. Should a horse not have winning form then look for a time when the horse ran a number of places.

By looking at the number of runs from a spell until winning form is achieved and finishes gives us guideposts for the three phases of a preparation. The runs leading up to a win is the improvement phase, the win being the peak and then when the horse is no longer winning, this is the declining phase.

Examine a couple of preparations to identify if there is a definite pattern for the three phases. If no definite pattern is evident have a look at the last two and make an educated guess as to when fitness should be at its peak. If, in the last preparation, it took five starts to reach a win and the preparation before last it took three starts, I would look at the four or five start mark.

Once you establish when the peak usually occurs, then have a look at how many runs the horse has been able to maintain winning or placing races. This gives you an idea of the length of the fitness peak. This plateau is very different for many horses.

The declining fitness phase is identified by the runs after the wins and places have finished and soon after the horse is spelled. The racing history enables you to establish a rough guide of how many runs a horse needs from a spell before they become a viable betting proposition. Alternatively, you should also be able to determine after how many runs the peak fitness is on the decline and the horse becomes a risky proposition.

This period between the end of the improvement phase and commencement of the decline phase is the best time to be investing on the horse. The runs during the peak phase represent the least risk when taking into account the angle of fitness. It's the period when the horse is expected to win; the trainer will have devised a schedule of training to give the horse every possible chance of winning a race during this period.

To illustrate the use of this knowledge it is best to have a look at a real life example. I have selected Havana Wind (HW) as it was one of my actual selections that I filtered out, as I believed the horse was no longer at peak fitness.

Prior Preparation

Current Preparation
4 - 2 - 2 - 1 - 1 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 2 (no more wins until spell)

I was making an evaluation of HW before the running of its seventh run in the current preparation. From the horse history we can see that HW built up to a win and then held this form for three runs before being beaten. If we look at last preparation we observe that the horse held peak form for three starts as well before one more run and then going for a spell. From this information we can make a reasonable assumption that after the three consecutive wins, HW is probably past peak fitness and therefore a risk exists that the next start will not be up to the level of past recent performances. With the short price on offer, HW did not represent value.

History shows that Havana Wind did not win this race. Many people would say that any number of factors might have contributed to the loss. This may well be true but I am happy that my fitness filter identified the risk and my money was invested elsewhere. My argument is that a fit horse can overcome negative factors during a race but a horse declining in fitness generally falls foul of race incidents.

Not all horses have a definitive pattern but generally you can get some feel just by examining the finishing position of a horse over prior preparations and then comparing to the same position in the current preparation. The pattern may change as the horse becomes older. The fitness improvement phase may lengthen with age along with the peak period becoming shorter.

Another good use of horse history is to enhance the statistics provided on first and second-up starts. A form guide may show first-up statistics of three wins from five starts. On this information alone, you may have confidence that the runner is capable of competing at a solid level of fitness first-up.

Something I have learnt is to have a look back through the racing history. It is important to ensure the horse has been competitive first-up in recent preparations. The three wins may have been early in its career and more recently it has taken two or three runs to reach fitness. Delving a little deeper into statistics can provide a better understanding than what can be understood on face value.

Detailing my use of these filtering processes is probably the best way to summarise this article. I analyse horse fields by using base ratings and then apply a number of filters to the runners that stand out in these ratings. My final filter is to ensure the horse is in a stage of fitness that gives it every chance in the race. It must be at or near peak fitness, whether first up from a spell or five runs in. Fitness must have been shown at this point in previous recent preparations for it to become a betting proposition.

By Brad Waldron