The first rule for betting survival never, in my view, changes.  And it is very simple: Bet within your means.

The moment you lose sight of this one, you can bet your sweet life that you will strike the longest run of losers you have ever known. It’s far worse than Murphy’s Law. Murphy says that if it can happen it will, whilst in this case it seems to me, both from my early experience when I was learning myself, and from speaking to hundreds of punters, that it will happen now.

You see, with Murphy it will happen, but you don’t know when.  I’m telling you that the moment you lose sight of reality the losing sequence will set in.

Back them to win and they will run second or third and they’ll be certainties beaten. I spoke with a reader who had experienced the situation as recently as the Sandown Guineas. He had backed Flame Of Sydney and watched her cruelly beaten after the most wonderful ride by Darren Beadman.

To make matters worse, she was beaten by a 100/1 chance. This was his get-out bet. She had drawn a wide barrier, and I’ll be talking about that one later on. 

Nonetheless, it was a wonderful ride as I said, and it deserved success.  But my friend assured me that he had stopped her and from his point of view, I had no reason to doubt it.

I used to know a punter who had a metaphysical view of racing. He reckoned there was a god of racing.  This god structured the races differently according to who you were, so if he was happy with you on the day he would let you win (this punter always muttered to himself “Please God, please God . . .” as they came towards the line . . .).

However, if you were in his bad books for one reason or another, maybe having said a naughty word that morning or kicked the dog, he would snatch the prize away from you right on the line. And the race that you were watching was not the race that other people were watching. They were all different. A bit weird, I agree, but that was his belief.

I mentioned above that if you back them to win and you are in a losing sequence, they will run second. Similarly, if you back them each way they will run fourth. They don’t run third or fourth if you back them to win, they run a close second. If you back each way, they miss the third place by a lip. They don’t run 11th.

That will happen, as sure as you’re born, if you are betting above your means. So you have to work out what your means are and stay within them. If, for example, you calculate that you can outlay $100 on a weekend and not bat an eyelid if you lose it, that’s fine. If you can do it with $200, so be it.

But if the thought of losing that sort of money puts you in a cold sweat, then you are betting outside your means and what’s more, you will not enjoy racing.

And then you have to ask yourself, what’s the point of it all?

So, only you can figure it out, only you know what your comfort zone is. Stick to it!

My second recommendation is tied in with something we mentioned above. Look, there will be situations like the Flemington straight track where you will break this rule, but fundamentally it is terribly important: Never bet on a wide barrier.

I have some strong reservations, while we’re at it, about betting on straight tracks at all. If you watched the straight races during the Flemington carnival, it was perfectly apparent that tracking the right course was often guesswork. I’ve got enough to do in working out a race without trying to figure out whether the jockey or the trainer will second -guess me and go the “wrong” way.

This is easily demonstrated when you see the horses split into two groups, or even where one jockey goes to one side and all the others go to the other, or, just to make it even more complicated, some go left, some go right, and one goes down the middle!

It’s almost worth the rule on its own, isn’t it? If you decided that straight track betting was not for you, I’d say it was probably a wise decision. It’s not a rule of survival because there aren’t enough of them to worry about, but it might be worth your while making a note of any straight track bets you have, then analysing things at the end of 2007.  Even after all my years, I think I’ll do it myself!

Wide barriers are never an advantage. In most cases they cost the horse its chance. All you really have to do is draw a vertical line on a piece of paper. Enter the numbers 1 to 18 from the top of the page to the bottom of the page, underneath each other.

If you want to go completely mad, you can get one of those Brisbane novices where they start 21 or so, but we’ll settle for 18. Now simply imagine that that’s the starting gate and that the number 1 is closest to the rails. Imagine the horses jump.  Forget everything else; just assume that we have a case of equality here.

It’s perfectly obvious to anybody that those horses out there in the high numbers are going to have one heck of a job to take up a position early. If they try to go forward, unless they have supersonic speed they won’t get across.

Even if they try to get back, they will suffer from being reefed across by their riders who are trying to find a position as near as possible to the rails. Once again I point out that I’ve got enough to do finding winners without trying to work out if my horse can get into a position.

There are situations where this doesn’t matter, so I’m told. Some of my friends who make money maintain that the barriers play a very small part in staying races. I’m not convinced. I think if you want to survive long-term, the easiest way to do it is to simply swear off any horse that is outside, for argument’s sake, barrier 10.

Why barrier 10? OK, I acknowledge that it’s arbitrary but you must have something. There will be cases where a horse that you thought had a pretty fair chance starts from barrier 11 and wins. It happens. But I’m always of the view that when it does happen, the punter tends to forget the 40 or 50 losers that he avoided by this simple inflexible rule.

Obviously you don’t have to follow my advice here, but I would say that you must at least be aware that you are moving into the realms of good luck, rather than good judgement, whenever you back a horse from a wide barrier.

The next “survival” rule which I recommend to all punters, whether they are in the game long-term as professionals, or they have come out for a once-a-year fun day, is: Make all your selections and decisions before you walk onto the racetrack or into the TAB.

It is crucial to have worked everything out before you hit the point where the money changes hands. If that’s the TAB, then take your diary with you or have all your bets written down, including the amount of money that each one will cost you.

If you are using telephone betting, the same thing applies.  Computer betting is more risky.  My personal advice is not to open a credit account and certainly not to register your credit card unless you’re capable of making substantial repayments if necessary.

By all means enjoy online betting, but don’t take advantage of the credit offered. I promise you that if you do, sooner or later you are likely to regret it. The easiest way of getting out of your depth is to have a credit account with a bookmaker.

There’s an old cliché about “wonderful servants but bad masters”. A computer credit account is a wonderful servant but if it takes you over, heaven help you!

Back to the specifics of this rule.  My reasons behind the advice followed these lines of thinking: your final decisions must be your own and your allocation of funds must be your own. By all means read everything you can lay your hands on, listen to everybody who matters, and adhere to some very good systems. To be perfectly honest, I think the average punter needs the stability of a handful of good systems. They take the responsibility for judgement off his shoulders, at least for part of his outlay.

If you know that you are following a method that regularly finds winners, you have a kind of security blanket behind you. I’ve always been in favour of systems. You don’t have to just be a systems person, but it is more true today than it ever was that getting an edge is darn hard work.

The beauty of a well-designed methodical and mechanical plan is that it is insensitive to emotional influence. Play around with the rules and you have a new system.  But stick to the system as it exists, and you are following (if it’s any good) a plan that has been developed and established as a result of a series of winning principles.

Whether you ultimately decide that your system investing will represent 50 per cent of your outlay, or more or less than that, will remain your decision. 

But you should give a lot of thought to it. Look at your own personality and the extent to which you make cold, hard, reasoned bets. Probably a mechanical system (I keep saying a good one!) is going to keep many of us alive a sight longer than hunches and hopes.

Our next recommendation for survival is to specialise: Decide on the tracks that you know best and stick to them.

I have often found myself that one of the most difficult aspects of my betting it is to stay out of areas where I think the horse has a fair chance, but I simply don’t know enough about the conditions under which it is racing.

For example, I don’t bet on Perth although one of our writers does and is highly successful. My hunting ground is Sydney where I attend the races regularly, and I also have the keenest interest in Melbourne and its horses.

When the carnival goes to Brisbane I know enough to be able to make investments where I think they are appropriate, but for the rest of the year I am more likely to concentrate my efforts on Sydney and Melbourne.

That does not mean that there are fewer opportunities in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth or Hobart or wherever. It simply means that I know my own limitations and that, while I am highly confident that I know most of what there is to know about Sydney and Melbourne tracks, I can’t swear on my life that this is the case for anywhere else.

Because I am a professional, I make it my business to understand the racing in all those centres and to be very familiar with most of the horses racing there. However, if I really want an edge for my own personal investment, I must focus on what I know best.

As an example, I can sit in the grandstand at Rosehill and spend as much time as I like becoming very familiar with everything about the track. I can do that at Canterbury or at Randwick and to a lesser extent at Warwick Farm.

Because, as many people know, I am a Novocastrian, I am very familiar with the Newcastle and Central Coast tracks and I am not afraid to have a lash at them if I find the right horse in the right race, under the right conditions. 

If I could give you an example, if you really want to have an idea of what makes Wyong or Gosford tick, you need to have been there and to have had a good look at these pretty little tracks.

I’ve saved probably the most important selection process until last. This one is something I swear by and should at least take care of part of your racing investments most weeks: If you stick with horses which are  in form, then most of the time you stand a better chance.

I was with a racing friend recently at Rosehill (it was on Sandown Classic day, actually) and he had not had a very good day. His first three investments of the afternoon had gone down and we were up to the final race at Rosehill.

He is a seasoned investor and he knows that you take the bad with the good, but he said something to me at that stage that I thought made a world of sense.

“My best bet of the day starts in this final race,” he said. “It’s won its only two runs this time in, it is trained by Joe Pride, and I have a lot of respect for his horses, particularly when he has purchased them as going concerns.”

What he meant by this was that Joseph Pride does very well with these tried and tested horses. This one, Scorched Earth, had won its first two starts this time in, the only two runs it ever had for Mr Pride. Virtually every other horse in the race was coming back from a spell (and that included the favourite).

This bloke was a Flying Spur, with three wins and a place from five lifetime starts. He had won his past two starts at Canterbury and Warwick Farm. Neither of us could see why the Rosehill circuit should present any difficulties for a horse at the absolute top of his form and I remarked that his dad had won the Golden Slipper over the same course and distance.

Something like that isn’t cut and dried, but it’s knowing your track and it’s knowing your horses associated with that track and that distance.  There’s nothing wrong with gaining a little bit of added confidence there in something like that. Form? Two starts this time in, two wins.

Oh by the way, he won. Don’t forget we’ve got Ask Me Anything, if you think of anything I might have omitted in this article.

By The Optimist