At the moment Australian racing should be pretty pleased with itself. Booming carnivals, record prizemoney and TAB turnover reflect a healthy portrait of a flourishing industry.

One aspect ?that continues to cause race clubs ongoing concern has been the alarming drop-off in on-course attendances over the years. Apart from the nation’s respective carnivals, attendances at your average Saturday and midweek meet have fallen away significantly.

When I started attending racetracks regularly in the early 70s, crowds were always healthy and the core of any racetrack, the betting ring, was always a beehive of activity irrespective of the time of year. These days on meetings that hold no special status, crowds are a shadow of yesteryear and betting rings are almost deserted. It would seem that over the years punters have opted to stay away in droves and facilitate their betting forays off track.

By far the most critical factor to impact on attendances has been the advent of Sky and TVN Racing. In days gone by if you wanted to watch live racing then you HAD to attend the racetrack, but now via the Sky/TVN service, racing is beamed live into pubs, clubs, TAB outlets and our own homes.

The evolution of the “techno” punter is also a contributing factor to the slow demise of the on course punter. As a new generation of punters embraces technology and Internet betting, it is all too easy to man computers at home and snap up the best available odds nationwide with the click of a mouse.

Many of my friends who were frequent racegoers in years gone by now elect to adopt this mode of wagering.

“There is no need to go to the track anymore” I am constantly told, and in a game where percentages and the procurement of best odds are crucial to the punter’s long term viability, they have presented a compelling case.

Personally, nothing beats live sport, and needless to say I am still a regular racegoer who finds the racetrack a place of exhilaration, even on those days of trivial attendance. So a point was reached where I needed to scrutinise the aspects of where I conducted the majority of my betting activities to discover whether my needs would be better suited by wagering on course or remaining at home.

As a person who is very serious about the pursuit of the punting dollar, if the scales tipped heavily either way, then that would be the long term path that would need to be adopted. Despite my obvious preference for being on track, I needed to be detached for this examination for the benefit of my own long term objectives.

There is an aspect of form analysis, which as a punting tool is still very much understated in terms of importance in backing winners. It is a term known as “nuance handicapping”.

Essentially, nuance handicapping is the observation of how racehorses parade before the race start. It is an examination of both looks and pre-race demeanor. For many professional and serious punters it is the final and most important filter prior to any bet placement.

Form analysis may throw up a “certainty”, but if the particular horse parades poorly and exhibits any form of demeanor that may adversely impact on its run then punters with developed observational skills will shy away from wagering on this animal. Nuance or physical handicapping also incorporates the detection of numerous other factors on racetracks which may be helpful in our betting decision making process.

A number of months ago I was at a midweek meeting at Belmont Park in Perth. I came across a runner making his race debut and what initially tweaked my attention was its impeccable breeding, being by Scenic out of former Group 1 winning mare Miss Margaret.

The horse was owned by the State’s most prolific and successful owner, Bob Peters. I made my way to the stalls area for further investigation. The horse looked magnificent, a robust, well muscled colt, glossy coat, looking both alert and relaxed. But by far the most interesting aspect was the presence of Bob Peters himself at the stalls.

Let me point out at this stage that Bob rarely attends midweek fixtures. ?He seemed particularly interested in this runner to the point where he almost seemed over attentive. He constantly tinkered with the gear and wouldn’t leave the horse’s side. The next point that struck me was the intensity of the pre-race discussion between Peters and trainer Frank Maynard.

It was an intensity that one would expect prior to a Group 1 event. What was now clearly evident to me was that these were pointers to a winning expectation. The horse was named Seafarer and he won at tote best odds of $41.

At a Saturday Belmont meet not long after this, my personal form analysis identified an outstanding bet in a horse named City Of Ruins, ?a classy galloper on the rise. He stood out like a beacon on a tough card and needless to add there would be no liberal odds on offer here. I would offset the skinny odds by having a substantial wager on this beast, and as is the case with any substantial wager I make I am always on course.

Bookmakers bet around the even money mark and this was what I expected. I waited as usual, prior to any bet placement, for the mounting yard parade. What I witnessed was a horse that had numerous off-putting signs. City Of Ruins had sweated up noticeably, its coat was dull and it was very fractious and at times unruly. These are signs one does not wish to see in a conveyance for our hard earned. I trusted my observations and completely opted out of what was going to be originally a substantial wager. City Of Ruins ran second.

Now the point I’m trying to push here is that if I had my backside parked in front of a computer instead of being trackside, then almost assuredly the opposite of what actually took place would have happened.

I certainly wouldn’t have picked up on the pointers that enabled me to back a 40/1 winner, nor would I have witnessed those discouraging signs that enabled me to opt out of a sizeable losing wager. The difference to being on track or at home in these instances in monetary terms was considerable.

There is no doubt in my mind that those punters who regularly attend racetracks are able to engage in a very important aspect of punting that is unavailable or at best very restricted to those who punt from home.

Proponents of armchair punting may at this stage wish to point out that there is ?television coverage of pre-race parades, but on any given day this is never guaranteed. The high volume of racing coverage quite often means that mounting yard parades are frequently missed.

It only takes one venue running behind time to see coverage of the next race begin when runners are almost boxed, thus depriving punters of any visual aspect of analysis. Nuance handicapping is about much more than horse observation; it’s about perception development and at times lateral thinking.

There is a well-documented story of a group of punters who cashed in by using this type of development. The group knew by sight the owners of a particular horse who was well into its current campaign. The owning group was always attired on a casual basis when sighted at the track, but on one day the group fronted and all were dressed like royalty.

Their horse’s race it was noted had a trophy presentation, so clearly the punting group surmised the owners had a high expectation of winning simply through the owner’s change in dress mode. The horse duly won at nice odds. Again this was a perception that could only be picked up by being on course.

For those punters who are regular track goers and wish to broaden their knowledge on pre-race presentations it is thoroughly recommended that one reads Geoffrey Hutsons’  Watching Racehorses, a comprehensive guide to betting on horses based on pre-race behaviour and mannerisms.

It’s an excellent read and clearly helps punters identify traits that can impact on which horses to back. Apart from the actual mounting yard parade it is also advantageous to the punter to note how runners make their way to the starting barriers and also note how runners pull up post race. It is a statistical fact that runners who warm up by galloping strongly to the barrier perform much better than those who just trot and canter around.

A rousing warm-up ensures a smooth transition from rest state to maximum output, by the quicker release of red blood cells from the spleen, thus enabling greater use of aerobic energy sources. Horses that don’t warm-up are likely to fatigue at a more rapid rate than those who do.

Statistics show that this effect is more prevalent in distance races. Punters should also be wary of horses that pull up too quickly after hitting the winning post, this could be indicative of some type of injury sustained during the race or that the animal may have just about had enough of its current campaign.

It is recommended that on course punters should always examine how runners parade and take brief notes on appearance and mannerisms, winners will display certain traits prior to winning, punters should be on the alert for similar traits in future starts.

Below is a table of just some of the positives and negatives that on course patrons should look for before any bet consideration.


  • Horses with good colour (shiny coat).
  • Horses with discernable muscle lines (fitness).
  • Horses that are relaxed during parade.
  • Horses that are alert (ears pricked).
  • Horses that warm-up properly with strong gallop to the barrier.
  • Intense instructions from trainer to rider.
  • Any gear changes from last start, particularly from a non-winning run.
  • Owners that are dressed for presentations.


  • Horses that have sweated up noticeably.
  • Horses that are fractious and unruly.
  • Horses with dull coats.
  • Horses that appear overweight or too “ribby”.
  • Horses that don’t warm-up properly.
  • Posture that displays lethargy, head low, ears flopped.
  • Horses that pulled up poorly at their last start.

There are numerous indicators on a racetrack, which to the perceptive can provide an important barometer to a horse’s chances, but it will only be the on-course patron who will be privy to many of these not so salient pointers of form analysis, that when incorporated into the full form picture will give on course punters a decisive advantage over their armchair rivals.

The benefits that those enjoy punting from home can easily be taken to the track through the use of mobile phones and palm digital assistants (pda’s) but the benefits that on course punters can glean can never really be taken home. The picture has become perfectly clear . . . number crunching and analysis can be done anywhere, but the closest we will ever get to being told whether a horse will actually live up to our form rating is from ?both looks and pre-race demeanor. ?

As for the dilemma of dwindling attendances, the nation’s race clubs need to be more attentive to punting trends and the modern punters’ needs by the provision of on course facilities where punters can wager online. Racing Australia has been far too slow in embracing technology, when, and if ever they finally come up to speed, only then will we see a return to those vibrant days of yesteryear.

By Ken Blake