When outsider Sparky Miss won the ABCOS Adelaide Million, a race with a first prize of $408,000, I'm sure most punters shook their heads in disbelief. After all, how could a youngster who'd been out of a place at her last three starts win such a prestigious race?

Certainly, if you studied only the form angle then you might have been forgiven for eliminating Sparky Miss from calculations. But if you'd looked beyond that to what I call 'the human factor' you might have reasoned that Sparky Miss was in the race with at least a bold eachway chance.

What do I mean by this 'human factor'? The Sparky Miss case will explain. It's the factor that makes you think twice about a horse. In this instance, trainer Jim Marconi makes up the 'human factor' that was so important in stabbing the Adelaide Million winner.

What, you should have asked yourself, was a 'small' trainer like Marconi doing in Adelaide with what seemed to be a pretty ordinary filly? Why was he attempting to win the big race with her, when she had failed at Caulfield the previous week (beaten 3.75 lengths), had run only 4th at Flemington (2.25 lengths) last November and 5th (6.75 lengths) at Moonee Valley last October 26?

The alarm bells should have rung when this question was posed. The only possible reason why Marconi would trek from Mornington to Morphettville would be because he felt Sparky Miss had a top chance of winning the race! When a trainer with a small team, like Marconi has, ventures interstate you should always take notice.

If you cast your mind back, you'll recall that it was Marconi who trained the crackerjack type Rancho Ruler, a racehorse which did so well whenever Marconi went interstate with him (great runs in Brisbane). So this is what I mean by 'the human factor'-it's simply extending your form study to take in the human as well as the horse side of things.

Quite often, especially as you become adept at noting trends, you will be able to make more sense of what at first glance n-tight appear to be difficult races. This 'human factor' particularly comes in handy when you’re assessing major races.

With big trainers, the 'human factor' probably doesn't have such an impact on your thinking, because we are accustomed to trainers like Lee Freedman, David Hayes, Bart Cummings, etc. taking horses interstate on a regular basis. No, what you should be looking for are the 'second division' trainers who usually remain at home but just occasionally decide to go south or north to tackle a race.

As a more recent example--one that, as it turned out, failed in a photo-finish was trainer David Hall's tilt at the Mornington Cup with his good middle distance performer Pelagic. Hall, based at Morphettville, doesn't take many of his horses interstate but when he does they are always worth taking keeping safe (at least!).

Hall took Pelagic to Melbourne three times in January and early February-and won three races at 11/8, 6/4 and 5/2. So you could reasonably expect that he kept the 5yo in Victoria for the Mornington Cup for one sound reason: He truly believed the horse could win the big country cup!

Pelagic almost confirmed Hall's optimism; it took the gutsy 4yo mare Big Colony to stave him off in a stirring finish. But by reading David Hall's mind, and following his lead on Pelagic, a punter could have chipped in with a nice each-way bet on Pelagic, as well as having scored along with him on those other three Melbourne wins.

During major carnivals - in Melbourne, in Sydney and particularly in Brisbane and Adelaide-there is much to be said for searching out the clues in your form guide to the human aspect of racing. Always ask yourself why trainers are doing such-and-such a thing?

Why is a small-time trainer travelling hundreds of kilometres, sometimes thousands, to race a horse in a certain race? What is the history of similar expeditions by the same trainer?

Sometimes you will be able to find 'information' about such raids by closely studying your newspapers, and form guides like Sportsman and Sporting Globe. As an example: Why did trainer Frank Cleary leave Canberra in late December with a 2yo named Clan O'Sullivan, to travel all the way to, firstly, northern N.S.W. and then the Cold Coast in Queensland?

Cleary is what we might call a 'second division' trainer who makes regular forays into Sydney, but rarely goes further. Yet here he was departing for the north and setting out to snaffle two top races-the Ballina Bracelet and, after that, the jewel in the crown, the Magic Million 1200m at the Cold Coast, one of the most prestigious races on the racing world calendar in Australasia.

Clan O'Sullivan proved Cleary's estimation of him to be spot-on, because he cleared out to win the Ballina Bracelet and then staged a whirlwind performance to easily score in the Magic Million. Once again, the 'human factor' had come into winning play, with a small trainer taking one horse interstate and winning a major race (in this case, two major races). The clue was there. Cleary handed it out by his decision to venture north with Clan O'Sullivan.

Naturally, on some programmes you will have races where a number of visiting trainers have horses entered. In these cases, your knowledge of what makes these trainers 'tick' will have to be used-if you've done your homework you'll know which of the trainers are the most successful, and this can influence your choice of horse to win the race.

The 'human' reasoning angle can be brought into use on any race card. Look carefully at the trainers, then at the form of their horses. You might ask yourself why a trainer is running a certain horse, especially if the horse is in a race which is out of his class, or if he is being backed up quickly from another race, in which he may have failed.

You are looking for 'motive'-much as a detective looks for a motive in a murder case. Trainers do not travel all over the place unless they have an ulterior motive-that is, a motive to win a race or to prepare their horse for another race.

The younger brigade of trainers, especially those in Victoria and N.S.W., are worth keeping a close eye on, because they are hungry for winners and they often dare to do what other more seasoned trainers might shirk.

Gerald Ryan, a former jockey who landed many a betting plunge during his riding career, is one of the best of the younger brigade of trainers. If you'd been examining the form at Kilmore on February 18 you might have noticed that Ryan was 'backing up' a 3yo filly named Anodyne only six days after she had finished 6th, beaten four lengths, in a Class 3 race over 1600m at Ballarat.

If you'd been looking for the 'human factor' angle you might have posed the question of why Ryan was going ahead with another race with the filly so soon after that previous race? Surely, he must fancy her prospects? She was being stepped up in distance to 2100m, so Ryan obviously felt the extra 500m was going to be to her advantage and not her disadvantage?

Anodyne proved Ryan's move to be the right one, by fighting on doggedly to win the race at odds of 5/1. What's the lesson to be learned from this? Well, we can deduce that Ryan knows what he's doing, and that in future we'll have to be alert for any similar placement moves by this trainer.

In betting, we should always be looking for value and it's often the case that with big trainers the value just isn't there, for the simple reason that stable plans are well-publicised and also the trainers have a massive following from rank-and-file punters.

Instead, the value lies with the trainers who don't get much publicity; those trainers we must keep tabs on ourselves, the trainers we have to get to know by looking closely at how they place their horses, and how well they get on when they go interstate.

Let's take an example to look at for the future, and here I am going to use trainer Bob Maxwell as the 'human factor' element. Maxwell is a good trainer, but one who rarely makes the headlines. He does, though, land some nice winners on country and city tracks.

Maxwell has a high opinion of his filly South Eastern Star, and he came close to landing a plunge with her at Flemington earlier this year (she lost in a photo to Northern Bisque).

This was an instance where Maxwell had given his filly a two-months break after she ran unplaced in the VRC Oaks; he then raced her first-up on January 11 at Moonee Valley over 1215m and she finished well back (8.5 lengths) in 6th place behind Mavoumae.

But then came the interesting move. Obviously pleased with the filly's condition, Maxwell put her in a 1400m race at Flemington on February 1 and she started a well-backed 5/1 chance, after being listed at 20/1 and longer in pre-race betting markets. Obviously, someone had been doing their homework! South Eastern Star went within an inch or two of landing the money after not enjoying the best of passages in the home stretch.

As a future benchmark for the 'human factor' why don't you use Bob Maxwell as the pilot-light? Trace his movements with South Eastern Star; see how he places her, check whether his judgement is accurate. He's been quoted as saying that he'll restrict her to shorter trips this year (probably 1000m to 1600m, obviously because he realises her failure in the VRC Oaks means that staying isn't her forte).

In the same way, look at Gerald Ryan's progress, and then what about a study of Ballarat-based Robert Smerdon, a trainer who regularly lands excellent winners on country/ provincial circuits? Tony Vasil is yet another young Victorian who has successfully switched from riding to training. Another up-and-coming trainer to watch, and try to understand, is John Sadler.

In Sydney, there are trainers like Hec Thompson from Cessnock, Sterling Smith, Anthony Cummings, Paul Perry from Newcastle, and the New Zealander Graeme Rogerson. Check them all out. Watch for patterns in their placement; look out for their 'tricks'.

My advice, then, is this: When studying any race. first check out the horse's form-then examine the trainer. Always ask 'why' and try to put yourself in the trainer's shoes to attempt to discover why he is running his horse in today's race.

If the horse is being quickly backed up after a failure, it could mean the horse was unlucky last start and that its trainer feels it can make amends.

The 'human factor' questions must be asked even more seriously when you are looking at the big prize-money races. Go carefully over each runner, mark off in coloured felt pen each runner which is in a 'second division' stable, firstly local ones and then the interstate stables.

Once you've done this, become a racetrack psychologist and try to sort out the 'angle' and whether you can agree with the trainer's thinking. You'll have a lot of fun, and 1 have no doubts at all that you'll lead yourself to backing quite a few winners you'd have never even thought about before.

Picking winners is an art form. There are many and varied ways of choosing your bets. Introducing the 'human element' that I've written about here will add another arrow to your bow.


  1. My is this horse in this race?
  2. What is the motive behind his trainer's thinking?
  3. Is there a pattern in this trainer's moves?
  4. My is a trainer trekking a long way from home with a horse which is rated only a longshot? (Remember Sparky Miss!)
  5. My does the trainer think his horse can win a major race?
  6. Has the trainer a history of bringing off big-race coups, or country race coups?

By Martin Dowling