There are many ways of looking at a last start winner. The principal thought that goes through my mind when I see this “1” against a horse’s name is that it automatically qualifies for a second look.

I know that another horse may have been beaten in a better race, and that some other horse again might have been unlucky, etc etc, but the fact is that a last start winner attracts your attention. Or it ought to.

If the win came before a spell (designated 1X) there is argument for disregarding it. This is particularly true of a stayer resuming. A sprinter might be a fair bet first-up, especially if its record says that it has done this before (i.e. won first-up). These past 10 years have changed my thinking radically on the first0up situation.

Nowadays many good trainers can have their charges ready to fire after a layoff. It used to be the province of a few top ones and one or two crafty old devils whom we all feared and admired. The “successful plunge” was often achieved on this kind of fresh horse, and especially on those which had “done it before”. Placement was everything. Now, it can happen and it does.

The course and distance winner is one to take into even more serious account, if it has a “1” against its name. I like course and distance winners at any time, and some of my best results have been with the consistent repeater. Don’t forget that “course and distance” means that the animal has won on this track over this distance at this track. I want to put it as clearly as this, so nobody gets it wrong. At this distance, on this track.

OK? Some papers (e.g. Sportsman’s Chartform, that excellent guide) can be confusing here, so make sure you thoroughly check what a horse has done by looking for a “C” in the official formguide.

The course and distance winner tells you that it has been able to “do it”, and added to a last start win you are at least on a form horse that has “done it” before.

Which brings me to the next possibility . . .

A course and distance winner that won its last start over today’s track, and even better over this identical track and distance (C), is a big plus. We’re moving along, as you can see, from a “possible” contender to a “likely” contender here. Of course there will be several steps more before we end up with a select basket, but we have already progressed.

Think about where we have come to. Now we have found a last start winner and we have established that it can win on this track, and at this distance on this track. If we now are able to add that it did this at its last start, and that (probably best of all) the start was not before a spell, we are starting to get near a real live chance.

The next step is to ask about statistics and see where that takes us.

Statistically, last start winners are quoted as repeating the dose about once in five tries. To put this another way, for every five horses with “1” against their names, one will win. This is a general theory based on about 50,000 test cases run past one leading computer program. I have seen other studies that put the figure somewhat lower, but rarely much higher.

In effect, this means an average price of 4/1 or $5 would be needed if you were to bet blindly on all last start winners, in order to cut even. This probably does not mean very much anyway, as nobody is going to bet blind like that (well, nobody with a racing brain!). But why not ask for the odds to be at least your way in this regard by setting your lower limit requirement at $5?

Its seems a fair ask from where I’m looking at it. More below, and a little relaxation to come.

The state of the track today and also then (i.e. when the horse won) is a big factor. If there was rain around last time and the track was designated “slow” or “heavy”, you are going to need to check two factors, not one. The first is the horse’s ability to handle a good or dead track, and then the second is the state of the track for today’s event. This is a reversal on normal proceedings. I am saying that if the track was off, you need to know (unless today’s is also off) that your possible bet is not just a “swimmer”.

Of course, if the horse won on a good or dead track (there’s not much between a good three and a dead four most of the time in the cities), you need to be sure it isn’t facing an “off” surface this time around. If so, its ability to cope needs to be carefully assessed. “W” or “M” will tell you if the horse has ever (note “ever”– not “consistently”) won under slow conditions, but rather ironically I have met very few punters who ever check their horse’s chances on a good track!!!

They take for granted that it will go okay, when in fact the slow surface might be the leveller the slower horse needs.

On a good surface it might not have a show of beating that class it competes against, but because of any number of factors (especially its breeding) the slower surfaces might not affect it as much as they affect the majority of animals. Weird but true, and hence we get our swimmers.

The year Van Der Hum won the Melbourne Cup the heavens opened, like really opened, and his price tumbled from “wouldn’t touch with a bargepole” to “let me on at any price!”

Subzero also loved the wet and, while he may have won anyway, it was a great advantage for that great grey stayer. Don’t forget, though, what many punters never learn: a horse that won on a slow/heavy surface last start might be no good thing to repeat the win if the track is anything better than that.

Speaking of the track, don’t forget that the tracks differ enormously. A horse that can win over 1200 metres at Moonee Valley, or maybe the Flemington straight 1200 metres, might be lost at Caulfield. You cannot know until you see for yourself. First time is a gamble.

Maybe some tracks will correlate, and their distances will more or less be compatible tests of ability. However, I much prefer a track specialist if I can find it.

And also, just to make it more interesting, the conditions will not correspond either. A heavy eight Sandown might not be equal to a heavy eight Moonee Valley. Or at least not be the same.

And when Caulfield gets wet, the game is over for me unless I can find an in-form track specialist. It is not often the case that out-of-formers win, but less fancied ones that are in form suddenly attract my attention much more strongly when it rains there.

I usually opt out, to be honest, but now and again a form horse (often a last start winner) at $6 or so will look very, very strong, when it didn’t maybe two hours ago!

Check the rider. Is he the same? Is he better (further up the premiership ladder, or a senior as against a claiming apprentice)?

Is the rider a regularly successful rider of this horse? Is he the stable’s top rider? Have they changed riders? Why?

Because the horse is carrying more weight this time and they want to get some weight relief? Or because the horse is carrying more weight this time and is within their best rider’s weight range now? Or because they have another horse entered in the field and they want our horse’s rider for that one (now that’s always a worry!)?

How about if the rider last time has selected another mount, quite of his own volition? Another worry.

So, the rider has to be very carefully considered. If he is not sticking, or has been replaced, the big “why?” has to be posed, and, if you are thinking of having a bet, resolved to your satisfaction.

By the way, “resolved” does not necessarily mean hearing or reading an explanation. You have to weigh up for yourself the selection’s chances, and how you see them being affected by any rider switch.

Ultimately it is still your money and you need to be able to make up your own mind whether any move seems to be positive . . . or not.

What distance was the last race? Was it roughly equivalent? We’ve looked at “C”, and we have covered “TD”, but how typical overall is that last start win of the horse’s performance record? If it is moving in distance, is this normal and proven as successful? What do you regard as “successful”?

Not one win in 20 tries, that’s for sure. I remember a horse called Shogun Lodge winning a big mile at Randwick some years ago and one noted scribe announcing to all who cared to listen that it was a “course and distance specialist” and “an obvious pick”.

Well of course he told us all after they had crossed the line, but the fact was this animal had run about 20 times at Randwick over the mile and had ONE WIN to its name! Specialist indeed: specialist LOSER! But then, that day it got up. The man who “knew” was the one who could laugh. Winners can.

Overall though, stay away from the last start winner that cannot show its consistency to your satisfaction at the distance of today’s race.

Check the running styles of your horse and the rest of the runners. If it’s a freegoing type, will it be able to lead, or are there two or three frontrunners that will make its life unpleasant?

If it runs on, is there pace? If that’s not the case, you see, the race will be (probably) run at a snail’s pace and the backmarkers will not be able to make up the ground.

That is a different topic, but take it from me, if there is little or no pace then the horses that drop out and fly home will be flying home all right, and they’ll finish twelfth or thirteenth!

Class. Aha, you wondered when I’d get to it. Well, we’ve been around it for this entire article, really. Relative class. In a nutshell, if the horse drops in weight after winning, you can be pretty sure it’s just risen in class. Can it handle it? There’s the sixty million dollar question. If it stays at the same class, or even drops a notch, it will in all likelihood go up in weight. What have they done (if anything) to compensate? How will it react?

That’s yet another topic on its own, but vitally important. We’ll get there one day.

And the barriers? Good or bad last time? This time? Fast jumper? Slow jumper? A study on its own, but Vital Study Number 606.

The market. Another one that really matters. The stats say that above $21 you really are out on a limb these days. Maybe you delete anything above $26 and below $3.50 pre-post.

This gives you a show at both ends of being a few points out. Remember we said “about $5” for the lower end. Well, now we say “above $26 (25/1)” for the high end. A bit of flexibility there. We will miss a few, maybe, but long term we will probably save money at both ends.

Finally, have we got any clues from previous campaigns? Does the horse win a couple early then taper off? Has it done this by now, this preparation, or was that last start win the first one this campaign (at, say, its second-up run)?

I tend to forget all two-year-old form in this regard. It is a rare few that set their records in place in those early days. The three and four- year-old campaigns are much more reliable, and by the time they are into their third or fourth preparations as “seniors” their patterns are more or less established.

Few horses change these patterns later than their four-year-old days. Some pro’s that I know tell me they have their very best results most years with consistent four and five- year-olds. These horses have set their patterns and can be relied on.

Furthermore, these serious bettors tend to prefer geldings and mares to entires. True, a mare can be “in season” but that has become quite rare as science has progressed and their condition is detected; but a randy, fully-equipped male can be a very bad bet.

So we have speed, course performance, distance performance, state of the track, the rider and the connections (trainer especially), the distance, the running styles of both your horse and the others in today’s event, relative class (of course), overall consistency and reliability, and the market indicators (not very scientific, that last one, but a guide).

Finally, we can check what’s on the board re other campaigns.

Take all these into account and you have gone a long way with last start winners. I’ll tell you this, though: if you get a positive feel, after putting a last start winner through this “racing wringer”, you can be pretty confident that you’ve done as much as any punter can, and that your horse is a real live chance.

Go for it!

By The Optimist