When Brian Blackwell, the editor of PPM, asked me to write a major feature on what I had learnt in over 40 years of punting, I wondered where I would start.

Additionally, his brief was tight in that he wanted THE top five lessons  I could impart to our readers in the hope my learning the hard way could save PPM readers quite a bit of angst, not to mention plenty of the folding stuff.

To say I have tried everything in the punting game would not be strictly correct but I can assure you there is not too much I have missed. To say I love a punt would be a gross understatement – the word “adore” is closer to the mark.

Over four decades I have learned an amazing amount about my personality and its place in what is called the ‘psychology of the punt’ but this article is not going to be about any Freudian expose or issues to do with masochistic tendencies.

It is going to be about form factors I am now extremely wary of simply because in my earlier years they cost me many dollars. Now, that’s not to say I do not  buck these “rules”every now and then, but when I do, for serious bets, I have really studied the angle and believe I have it right.

The biggest error beginners make when betting on racehorses is they take far too many risks on the fitness of the steeds they are selecting. A fit maiden would usually struggle against the best horse in the land even if the better galloper is unfit; this is simply due to ability.

However, if the best horse in the race was matched against a performer with some proven class not too far below this top class horse we have a situation where an upset is on the cards. You MUST remember that horses are not machines; therefore, fitness has to be an issue.

The biggest risk area in regards to fitness must be when a horse races first-up because, quite simply, we cannot know how fit this animal is until it runs. Even the trainer is often only guessing; the horse may have trialled well but there is nothing like an actual race to prove where the horse’s fitness level is on a scale of 0-10.

Before you bet on a horse first-up you must really delve into the formlines of previous first-up efforts. It’s not enough to consult the formguide and note your selection has raced four times first-up for two wins and two placings. Some serious questions need to be answered.

Exactly where did the first-up efforts take place? Were they in the city or in the country? Two wins in the country do not equate to a first-up contender in the city.

You must ask the next obvious question: Were the country wins against weak or strong opposition compared to today’s race? If against weak opposition, trouble is waiting around the corner. If the win was in the city it is still not enough to assume the horse is a genuine contender today because other questions need answering. The first is obviously again about the class of horse in those wins but the next part of the equation also needs to be filled in.

This deals with distance. If today’s race is over 1200m and this horse has won against weaker company at 1000m or 1100m there is considerable risk. There is even risk if the wins have been over 1200m against weaker opposition because today’s field is going to be tougher to beat than those in the wins.

Eventually we get to a horse that has won against this class of opposition and suddenly we start to look at this conveyance as the catalyst to the start of a beautiful punting friendship but we still need to consider a couple of other factors.

Were the wins in today’s type of going? Naturally, wins in opposite types of going are not a recipe for betting today, are they? Before we say “Yes, this is worth a bet”, there is one other worry that occurs less frequently and that is the issue of handicaps and wfa formlines when dealing with four-year-olds and above.

If today’s race is under wfa conditions and the wins were in handicaps would you be likely to jump in and bet? You certainly would not on the class issue unless the win in a handicap was at the top of the weights in a top class event, and so another factor sneaks in. However, if the win was in a wfa event and today’s race is at wfa then we have a fair deal in the offing, all other things being equal, such as distance and track conditions.

Please, whatever you do in a horse race selection, do consider fitness above all other factors to begin with. Quite often, after just a minimum amount of serious investigation, that first upper that looked so inviting at the start of your form work can all of a sudden look like a genuine risk.

As a possible way of ensuring you actually stick to a plan of attack against the fitness issue why not construct a grid which forces you to make a decision rather than just leaving things to chance. I am not about to construct such a grid for you: that is your homework! They are your standards so it’s your grid.

Just when you thought that all about fitness had been discussed  I will say, “Wait there is more”. What about horses having breaks of 28 days or longer but not official spells?

Again, use the commonsense approach I have mentioned above with the first uppers. How has this horse gone in the past with a similar break from racing at THIS class or as close as you can ascertain? The ability to line up past performances with today’s spell date problem is paramount to your success as a punter.

Why throw away money on horses whose fitness you doubt? It goes without saying you can already do this easily enough on the types of  horses that masquerade as horses but are actually milk drinkers without adding unfit horses to the list.

In the May edition of PPM regular contributor The Optimist wrote one of the finest summaries you will ever see in his article about an issue I mentioned  a couple of years back when reviewing the deeds of the famous American punter, Andrew Beyer. The issue is about, as The Optimist put it, “The slick art of specialisation”. 

At the end of his list of 12 suggested strategies he wrote, “You might already know where you do best but you just needed someone to tell you to shake off the rest of your investments and to concentrate on what you do best”.

No truer words could ever be spoken or written about the punt. Just where do you punt the best? Think about it carefully and make some decisions.

Just recently I made a firm commitment to myself to only bet seriously in Open Handicaps and wfa events around the country. Initially I included the infamous races that comprise the female stock only but on deep reflection I have decided to drop them. 

In open handicaps and wfa events you can usually dump the mares, unless we have the likes of Makybe Diva and Sunline engaged, because usually they are just not strong enough. In mares’ events there are many instances where the females have had to race against the males in previous runs to build up their fitness and are dropping back in class.

How does a three length defeat against the males last run stack up against females only today? Should it be two lengths or can it be four lengths? Can you see there is a grey area in there that is actually just an educated guess?

If I’m comparing the three length defeat of a male by a male then three lengths is three lengths and no further thought needs to be entered into but with a female dropping back in class I have to try and assess what that three lengths actually means. It is much easier to drop the female races.

By sticking to open class fields I can often immediately eliminate the no hopers because I know they have yet to perform as winners at this level. Usually these horses are those on the limit weight and if you have a look at the official ratings given to those on the limit the risk horses stand out. History shows favourites are relatively consistent across all distances so I am not going to drop any distances at all.

Again the statistics show betting on wet tracks, especially heavy, is not the bogey that many punters have been taught to believe. Wet trackers win races in the wet and it is not any harder than that. Where the problem lies is when a wet spell occurs during a period when it is usually dry and many of the runners are not actually wet trackers.

The running style of open class horses is usually well known due to numerous past efforts hence deducing the effects of barriers can be easier at times. It is amazing the number of horses that have quite unique styles of running depending on their barriers but part of that is reflected in the habits of the trainer.

Some trainers will rarely push a horse forward from a wide barrier if it is not a flash beginner therefore knowledge about the trainer certainly helps solve some parts of the punting riddle. If you can get a copy of the article by The
Optimist article do so: it is well worth the read.

All I can add is to also beg you to specialise. The specialisation, by the way, can be by distance only i.e. 1200m only or by following  a select band of trainers and it goes without saying some jockeys are well worth following especially those that follow the carnivals. The likes of Darren Beadman,  Dan Nikolic, Glen Boss and Damien Oliver are prime examples: a careful study of the movements of jockeys will pay dividends.

If you lay horses on Betfair you might only lay horses that are drawn wide: that is specialisation, too. It’s your choice but choose what best suits you because that is “specialisation”.

Next month I will add to the two areas I have focussed on in this article, that is, fitness and specialisation by providing my opinions on the word “value” and an area the late EJ Minnis valued very highly, the” in running position”. Until then all the best with the punt.

Click here to read Part 2.

By Roman Kozlovski