Looking at two recent Saturday meetings in Sydney and Melbourne, I was struck by the statistics of each winner's 'last run' days. They served to emphasise the value of recent form when making selections.

Six of the eight winners at Rosehill had their last start within the previous 21 days. At Moonee Valley, seven of the eight winners had their last start within that same period. In all then, 13 of 16 winners had raced 21 days or less before the current race.

Of these, nine winners had their last start 14 days or less ago. Pretty significant figures, aren't they? And, I can assure you, most racedays will confirm this sort of winning vein.

So what lesson do we learn from the stats? Exactly! Look for those runners with RECENT form, preferably within the last 3 weeks, even more preferably within the last 14 days. If there's a tossup between two horses and one has raced 10 days earlier and the other one 28 days earlier, then in the long run it would pay to always opt for the '10 day' runner.

We can, of course, use a simple 'ratings' formula when assessing horses in a race. That is, we assume that recent form is BEST and we allot points (in the form of kilos) to take account of that. Once we get beyond 21 days, we then introduce PENALTIES. One well-known formula is as follows:

LASTSTARTPOINTS
Up to 10 days1.5+
11 to 14 days1.0+
15 to 21 days0.5+
22 to 29 days0.5
30 to 44 days1.5
45 to 60 days3.0
61 to 90 days6.0
91 to 120 days9.0
121 upwards12.0

As 1.5 kilos is believed to equal a length, we can see that we are allowing 8 lengths penalty for a horse which hasn't raced for 4 months or longer. Some professionals use even higher penalties, though personally I feel 12 kilos is enough.

Using points like this will always give you a clear idea of 'fitness' even if you use nothing else except your own nous when looking at form. There is nothing better when studying form than to have a clear picture of what you are studying.

Finding out each horse's 'days since' pattern is easy because formguides like The Wizard and Sportsman both carry this line of information, so it's not a matter of counting back from the form dates any longer - thank goodness.

Fitness, in my opinion, could be more easily assessed were horseracing to adopt greyhound racing's policy of weighing each runner, and allotting each dog a 'racing weight'. Now, I know this subject has been touched upon before in this magazine, but I do believe it is one worth raising again.

It never ceases to surprise me that our racing officialdom has not come to terms with the 'weight of horse' approach. Our racing offsiders in Japan have used such a system for many years. In that country, all horses are given a racing weight and if, on race day, they are too much under or over that weight, they are scratched.

Here in Australia we allow grossly unfit horses to race. You only have to look at them in the mounting yard to realise they have no hope of winning. Yet the powers that be allow them to be raced. They call them 'conditioning' runs.

The fact is, though, that these horses are not in the race to win. Sure, their trainers will say they will run them 'on their own merits' but we all know that the merits on the day are a joke because the horses are unfit and well below their peak.

Anyway, we are stuck with the current system of operation so we have to make the most of it. That means form study and finding some principles on which to base our thinking. In this regard, the bonuses and penalties already listed should prove a big help.

A person who goes to the races, and takes the time to look the runners in the mounting yard, should be able to discern things for himself. But you do need to know something about body language' to sort the fit from the unfit.

I was chatting recently to a professional punter in Sydney and the subject of our discussions was 'condition' in a runner. He said he regarded this as the first requirement in a number of factors to be assessed.

He told me: "All the results tend to show that horses can overcome practically all handicaps but they can't win if they are not fit." How right my friend is when he says this.

So what do we do when we open our Sportsman and start to look at the form? My own approach is to put a blue marker pen through the horses which haven't raced for between 22 and 40 days. These are the 'maybe' horses; you can't write them off completely but there has to be a question mark over their fitness.

Then I mark the 41 days and more horses with a red pen. These are the 'spell' horses and the runners which have the biggest queries hanging over them. They haven't raced for some 6 weeks and longer and there has to be a grave doubt about whether they are fit enough to win.

Having done this, the remaining runners are the ones I concentrate on. They had their last start within the previous 21 days. But, firstly, I put a green slash through those which are racing second-up. Although their most recent outing may have been within 3 weeks it could have been their first run for a long time.

The old query mark goes over them. Can they win second-up? Are they fit enough? How well did they perform first-up from the spell? Have they got any second-up winning form?

We are left with the cream of the contenders. They should be fit horses at the very least. Now we can look for those strong, in-form runners suited at the track, distance and by the going. We can also start to ferret out improvers - those runners whose form may look ordinary but which have had enough racing to prepare them ideally for today's race.

Working out formlines is not all that difficult, provided you can use a sensible set of rules. Always try to set about your assessments in a workmanlike and consistent manner.

If you are applying the 'days since' factor, then check out each runner, one by one. Then move on to the next factor, and repeat the exercise. Soon you will find you are moving faster and faster through a field, mainly because you are being systematic in your approach.

Now for some pertinent thoughts on the 'condition factor' which you might care to remember when you are tossing up between likely candidates for your betting money.

HOLDING FORM
Recent runs will, as I have stated, give SOME indication as to whether a horse is improving or nearing its peak - or whether, having reached its peak, it is now on the decline. Horses cannot hold top form for long periods. They reach a summit and, after remaining at that level for varying periods, they start to taper off, or decline.

WARNING SIGNS
When you notice the slightest sign of a horse losing form you have to be careful. Weigh up a horse's form with moderation, and be wary if it has had a lot of runs in the current campaign AND is showing recent signs of not racing at its best.

HARD RACE BACKLASH
While a horse may be fit, there is always a danger that it has been 'knocked ragged' by a particularly hard run. Try to find out as much as you can about a horse's previous performance - and this applies especially when the horse is being asked to carry a big weight (say 57 kg and more).

STRONG FIRST-UP RUNS
I have already warned about the dangers of second-up runs. This is even more important when a horse has had a particularly hard first run back from a spell. If it was unfancied there's a good chance it just went too hard for its own welfare and came out of the run suffering more harm than good.

PREVIOUS PERFORMANCES
A horse's history can tell you a great deal about it - and horses do generally perform to a set pattern (as disclosed in the excellent Blueprint publication). Take into account how a horse has performed after returning from a spell. Some horses race into peak fitness very quickly, others take much longer.

My colleague Statsman has firm views on the subject of horses resuming and how long it takes them to find true form. His fitness chart has become something of a 'bible' for keen form students and I suggest you study it carefully and decide if you'd like to work with it during your form study. Alternatively, you can use the previous figures I have used in this article.

Statsman divides horses into 3 categories - Low, Average and Good. He allows the lower-grade horses more races to reach peak fitness. Using his approach, you assess a horse's class, and then apply his chart figures to determine how many runs it will take to reach peak.

HORSE
CLASS
RACES
TO FITNESS
LENGTHS
OFF PEAK
PENALTIES (kg)
(No, start since spell)
12345
Low5696210.5
Average34631.5--
Good22.53.51.5---

Finally, some viewpoints on condition from a few of the world's leading authorities on racehorse handicapping:

KELSO STURGEON (author of Guide to Sports Betting): The horse must have had a run within the previous 15 days and he must have been in a placing in a race within the last month.

TOM AINSLIE (well-known US racing author): The horse must have raced within 24 days.

NATE PERLMUTTER (author of How To Win Money At The Races): Lay off the horse that hasn't been to the post within the last month (30/31 days).

SCOTT FLOHR (author of Handicapping To Win): Horses must have raced within the last 17 days, inclusive.

GORDON JONES (author of Gordon Jones To Win): My study of condition suggests you can bet a horse off a good race within the last 30 days in most instances.

ANDY BEYER (top-selling US writer): A horse's record should show a recent race, within the last week or so, or good workouts (track gallops).

AMERICAN RACING MANUAL: The likeliest contender in terms of fitness is the one whose record shows frequent, recent competition, signs of improvement in the last race or two, and at least one workout (track gallop) during any week the horse didn't race.

DR WILLIAM QUIRIN (author of Winning At The Races): A horse that has been idle for over one month is a bad risk. A horse that has failed to run a good race in over one month is an even worse risk.