Fitness - as far as off-course punters are concerned is very much a mystery. TAB punters haven't a clue as to whether a horse is fit or otherwise as it lopes off to the starting gates.

We may see all the races live on SKY, but what we don't see are the horses themselves as they parade before a race (save for fleeting glimpses when major races are on). The only way an off-course punter can decide about a horse's actual state of fitness is to look at its form lines and make a subjective judgement.

When we see a horse is resuming after a spell, there's a natural inclination to scrub it from contention. In contrast, if we see that a horse has had three or four runs this campaign we make an instant assumption that it's fit.

This is quite normal. But it leaves us wide open to error just because a horse is coming back after a spell does not necessarily mean it isn't fit. A lot of horses win at their first run back because their trainers have specially prepared them for the return to racing. Far from needing racing, they are sharp and ready to fly!

There's not a great deal the off-course punter can do to offset this lack of instant knowledge. The only way you can see the horses close-up, at your leisure, is to go to the races, and this is something a majority of punters cannot manage to do, for one reason or another.

By studying past form, and drawing conclusions from it, we can go some of the way to remedying the problem. What it all means is that you are really trying to spot the 'improving' runners by deciding if their previous runs have contributed to a peak fitness level which will enable them to produce a winning performance.

Some years ago a big study was made of Sydney racing, the results of which came up with the following conclusion: On average, 43.5 per cent of Sydney and Melbourne winners were improvers, 52.5 per cent were horses at their peak of condition while only 4 per cent were horses with fitness on the decline.

Therefore, add them all together, and we find that 96 out of every 100 winners were horses on the improve or in their best form. Obviously, then, when you assess a field of horses you have to place great emphasis on this aspect.

Let's look more closely at the 'improvers' issue and try to determine how we can spot them. I will make the following points:

  1. A horse resuming from a spell will, for the most part, not display its best form. A horse will generally need some racing - though we will always be hit on the chin by those first-uppers who sneak up and win. They are few, the losers are many. At a horse's second start, improvement can be expected. Most second-uppers will not win but they will finish closer to the winner than at their previous first-up effort. More improvement will come at the third start.
  2. Now we look for horses which race with the leaders and stick with them until close to home before weakening. These horses are usually free-striding front-runners and they will need only a run or two to hit their peak. Check your turn and finish photos, or your video replays, and try to spot these horses.
  3. Check for horses who race about 5 lengths off the pace and manage to go to the line full of running. They could be set to ping next time out. Usually, they are the sort of horses who win by pulling out a short, sharp final sprint.
  4. Horses that get back and then run home strongly from the entrance to the straight are usually indicating their readiness to win. But always make sure a horse is not simply running past a mob of knackered gallopers! This is where video replays are particularly useful.

All these points have to be considered when you are trying to 'guess' whether a horse is ready. You can't see the horse to determine if it is fat or lean, so you can only make a judgement based on what you know, taking into account what has generally happened in the past.

Personally, I always prefer my horses - the ones I bet on, that is - to have had a fair bit of racing. Three runs is usually a minimum ceiling I impose, except in those instances where I know a horse is capable of winning first-up or second-up, based on what it has done before (its 'pattern' of racing).

I also like recent form. I am cautious when a horse has been given, say, three outings and is then not produced for another month. My logic here is that horses will not improve in condition while they're in a paddock or in a stable, without racing.

A steady string of runs is always comforting to see, maybe 7 to 14 days between each outing, or 21 at the most. The key is to find when a horse is going to hit form - and then to determine for how long it will retain form.

How many horses do we see win brilliantly one week, and next start they are down the track? A lot! Many horses, either because of their personal makeup or their trainers' incompetence or cunning, seem to hold form only for a brief period. Others can keep grinding away consistently for half a dozen races.

Much depends on which races a horse runs. A horse can win a Maiden but, despite being fit, it will fail next start for the simple reason that it cannot compete in a higher class of race. This is why it's best for punters to stick with formful races, like Open Handicaps, Welters, Weight-for-Age and Set Weights, where the form is exposed and the horses tried and proven. 

Click here to read Part 2.

By Philip Roy