Fitness plays such an important role in horse racing, and so few punters really know much about how to assess it, that we assigned Statsman to set out in detail his own expert views on this important topic. In this special article, he tells you exactly how to go about summing up each horse's fitness-the professional way.

It has been correctly stated that a horse race is nothing less than a contest between equine athletes. So for a horse to be capable of a flat-out effort against its own kind, it needs to be fit.

Punters who attend the races, if they are astute enough, can examine each horse in a race and determine the level of fitness by taking into account a horse's actual condition. The off-course punter has no such chance, so he must depend on an examination of a horse's form chart, and he has to assume that his fancy is in a condition to win and is completely free in his action and is not sweating up badly in the preliminary.

A long-time pal of mine once told me that fitness was the handmate of class, and he was exactly right. Men you come to analyse a horse race these two factors are virtually intermingled and one can be meaningless unless considered in terms of the other.

Let's start with the basic fact that a horse must be fit to give of its best. We all know, of course, that this rule is flouted in just about every race, because horses are produced all the time which are not in a fit enough condition to win. Everyone accepts this practice-for example, form comments like 'likely to need the run' are commonplace, and, after a race, comments like 'looked fat,, blew up badly' are published.

I have often believed that Australia should adopt the policy which has proven so effective in Japan, and that is for all horses to be given a racing weight. If, on race day, they are not within a reasonable margin of this racing weight, they should be scratched. This happens in greyhound racing; why shouldn't it happen in horse racing? No one has yet been able to provide me with a satisfactory answer.

So how do you assess fitness? It's quite easy, really, as long as you are prepared to put in a bit of time and thought into the exercise. For a start, we know that about 80% to 85% of all races are won by horses whose previous start was not further back than four weeks (28 days). More than 60% (approximately) have not raced further back than 21 days. It's a strong guidebut we need to delve further than that in relation to fitness.

Racehorses are much like humans where athleticism is concerned. A low grade horse in sharp physical condition will often beat a better quality horse which isn't in good condition. So, with this in mind, let me suggest the following: Fitness can be defined into three aspects: IMPROVEMENT, IN FORM, DECLINE.

How fit is a horse resuming from a spell? This is a question punters face almost every race day. A spell, to my way of thinking, indicates a horse hasn't raced for 60 days or longer, a let-up means a break of less than, say, eight weeks. Let's then deal with the improvement factor firstly. This is what many call the warm-up period when the horse is gradually slipping into form and it's a process that starts well before its actual run on a racetrack.

Statistics tell us that most horses having their first run after a spell are not fit. At their second start, they are closer to winning condition and by the third run ... well, on it goes, a horse getting fitter each run. An average horse, we can say, required at least three starts to be in winning condition.

My own research-and it's been endorsed by others, too-is that the average horse (not all horses!) can be considered to be between four and six lengths off its best fitness when it resumes after a spell. So we have to give a value to this aspect of things.

If we assume that a horse -is, say, four lengths off its peak, we would translate that into kilos, with each length corresponding to 1.5kg. Therefore, we can assume that a horse might be four lengths, or six kilos, off its best on resuming. Others could be six lengths, or nine kilos, off their best.

Personally, I divide horses into three 'class' categories: Low, Average and Good. I also allow the lower-grade horse more races to reach peak fitness.

I have drawn up the attached table (FITNESS CHART) to give you a clear idea of what I mean, so you can apply the figures to each horse when examining form for a race:


When a horse resumes you assess its 'class' and if you decide that here is an average class horse you can assume, using my chart, that it will probably take three races to reach fitness, and that at its first run from a spell it is likely to be four lengths off winning fitness. This translates to 6kg on the chart. When it has its second outing from a spell, you can assume that it is now two lengths, or three kilos, off winning condition and at its third outing it is just a length, or 1.5kg, from peak.

A lower-grade horse we are assuming will take longer to hit its straps-five starts, with a six lengths' gap from peak fitness on resuming racing (9kg). Those of you who use ratings will be able to make full use of this information by referring back to a horse's previous 'peak' performance.

We might have, say, a horse with a previous 'peak' rating of 60. On resuming, and we assume this is, for example, a top-grade galloper, we will assess it has being just over two lengths (3.5kg) off its best, giving it a potential rating to return of 56.5kg. If you had a low-grade horse resuming, with a previous peak of 44, you would assume that it is now only capable of turning in a race rating of around 35 because you consider it be possibly 9kg off its peak.

In his best-selling book Winning More, the authoritative professional punter Don Scott lays enormous emphasis on the condition factor, though his figures are at a little variance with my own. For example, Don suggests that horses resuming after a short let-up of one to 1.5 months should be penalised 1.5kg to 3kg, while horses which have had a spell of two to three months should be penalised between 3kg and 8kg. He suggests horses resuming after a spell of three months or longer should be penalised between 3kg and 15kg.

Don describes his penalties as 'severe' because most horses race well below their best at their first run after a spell. His comments about horses resuming after three months or longer away from racing are most interesting. He says: "You expect a noted first-up performer, which has had one or two barrier trials, to rate only three kilos below its expected peak. You also expect a noted first-up failure which has not trialled, and which needs four or five runs to come anywhere near its best, to rate 15kg below its peak.

"Between these two extremes come a whole range of horses which you have to penalise according to your discretion. You will often find it difficult to decide on the right penalty. The more first-up horses you assess, the better your decisions will be. For most horses a penalty of 8 to 9.5kg is reasonable."

If, of course, we had racing weights the entire issue of fitness would be far easier to sort out. We would have an exact weight comparison to make, and if we could see that a resuming horse was some 50kg or 60kg heavier than his peak racing weight we would be very suspicious about his fitness!

If, however, he weighed in very close to his peak racing weight we might well decide that his trainer had poured the work into him and that he was likely to run a bold race fresh.

Unfortunately, the average person who bets is not in a position to know with any degree of certainty whether his horse is fit or not. Many professional punters make sure of a horse's condition by lining the bird cage when the runners parade, and they study each horse in the gallop to the barrier. They know fitness is essential and they are astute 'body language' experts who can quickly pick the out of fitness gallopers from those who look ready for a
big effort.

Recent performances will give a good indication as to a galloper's fitness. They will certainly indicate if a horse is improving and nearing its peak, or whether it is slipping back on the decline. Horses do not hold form for long periods. They reach a summit and, after remaining there for a while, they begin to taper off.

The actual period, or degree, of improvement from an initial run after a spell will, naturally, vary from horse to horse. The chart I have provided will help you in this regard. Always be wary of first-up specialists. Now the facts are that some horses do specialise in winning, or running dose to a win, after a lengthy rest. I estimate from my research that about 7% of horses regularly win their first race back from a spell. The only way of keeping track of such horses is to jot their names down in a book.

Once a horse has reached peak fitness, a punter's next task is to decide how long it will remain at that peak. I would suggest that the average horse will 'peak' for three runs and then begin either a slow or rapid decline.

So with a low-grade horse, we could possibly, see the following set of form figures following a spell: 9th, 9th, 8th, 5th, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 5th, 7th, 10th. This indicates the horse actually took four runs, all unplaced, to reach the point where it could finish in a placing (3rd). It then hit its peak with a win, a 2nd and another win, before beginning its decline with a 5th, 7th and a 10th.

Let's sum up, then, the fitness caper: First, you can usually assume that if a horse is resuming after a spell, it will not be fit. It will have just started an improvement climb. Second, once a horse has had its first start back it is likely to need at least one or two more runs before striking top form. Once it is in form it will hold that form for three, maybe four, runs before beginning an inevitable fall-off in fitness and form.

Often, with good trainers, you can follow fitness patterns quite easily. Trainers like Tommy Smith, Bart Cummings, Paul Sutherland and others follow a set pattern with many of their runners. Keep an eye on their stable entries for a while and you'll probably discern a training trend.

One way of obtaining week-by-week ratings on horses, which you can use to find peak performances, is to subscribe to a reputable 'ratings' publication and computerised database service. George Tafe, the guru of Queensland's form experts, puts out a weekly Turf Guide and data base that rates hundreds of horses each week.

By Statsman