This is the second part of my article on recognising the vital signs in your betting and understanding how they operate. We were at the point of talking about formguides (vital sign ten) when we ran out of space last month.

These days there are as many formguides and types of formguides as there are Sydney coffee shops. A formguide can be comprehensive or simple, colourful or plain and usually provides tipsters (for better or for worse!) and articles which can range from really valuable to, well, not very.

It should be a vital sign of a punter’s commitment that he at least is committed to one serious formguide. I have to say that the formguide provided by the Fairfax group is the best newspaper guide I have ever seen anywhere in the world, and its 40 pages on Friday morning are a most welcome addition to the breakfast table.

I suppose the size of the Saturday paper precludes their distributing it then, and certainly the Saturday guide is by comparison totally inadequate. However, a free guide of the kind you get on a Friday is just unbelievable and has to rank amongst the finest “free” racing offerings you are ever likely to experience.

In addition, you need at least one specialist paper and this will very largely be determined by your own personality and your betting skills. Best Bets is the most convenient by far; Winning Post is I am told, the biggest seller and probably the best all-round fully fledged formguide and Sportsman is unmatched in its detail and in Chartform; those central pages which system’s fans and professionals value so highly. It would be a vital sign if you didn’t have any of these!

Vital sign eleven is that you must act like a student of the racing game. If you’ve already decided that you are a professor, then sooner or later you are in for a most horrible crash. The truth of the whole thing is that we never stop learning, we remain lifetime students and even when we think we’ve got something straight in our minds, something else comes along and blows us right out of the water.

As an example, in my view the stewards in Melbourne are far less likely to uphold a protest than the stewards in Sydney. Horses virtually have to be knocked over. This is just something you learn over the years. Furthermore, horses are far more likely to be vetted and then returned to the starting stalls in Melbourne, than they are in Sydney. And they never, ever win.

I say that as a student of the game. It’s something that I’ve taken on board, something over which I have neither any control nor any particular axe to grind. If you think I’m wrong, I suggest that you are just not as old as I am and you haven’t experienced as many Melbourne race meetings.

Next vital sign twelve, respect experience. If I dared, I would say respect my experience and trust me on that previous paragraph, but that would be a little bit smug, wouldn’t it? When I first started going to the races in Sydney, I made a point of singling out people identified as really having “the knowledge”. It was those people that I have to thank for where I am now, because each time I sat and listened to them, I was able to take a little bit more on board and my education process went on and on. Of course, one of the things I know now is that you never stop learning and that there is no activity to compare with racing if you wish to be brought down a peg or two.

Respecting experience doesn’t mean that you can’t have an opinion of your own, but so many times experience will save you both time and (especially!) money. If I were to tell you right now that backing horses from outside barriers at Rosehill, over the sprint distances, is only for fools and madmen and you pulled out some statistic or other which suggested that it isn’t such a bad thing to do, I’d probably shrug my shoulders. I accept that you have every right to disagree with me. The only thing is, I know you’d be wrong. I might refer you to the Golden Slipper as a classical example of the tragedy of the outside barriers at 1200m.

The 13th vital sign is that you must have an attitude to wet tracks. A very close companion of mine might do several hours’ homework on a formguide, preparing his attack on a meeting which he thinks he can beat; and then it rains! He simply packs up, still watches the program, but makes no bets.

Over the years, he has learnt that he does not win when Jupiter Pluvius is at work. I don’t operate like that, preferring to keep my options open and often having a stable of wet weather horses that I keep an eye on. I can’t work through the winter anticipating good tracks: the vast majority will be dead 4 to slow 6 or 7. But the vital thing is that you understand what you are doing on such tracks and that they are all different.

Dirt tracks tend to have a far greater similarity with each other, whereas grass tracks vary one to the other every day of the year. Hence you must know your tracks as well as the weather and this is the 14th sign. This is the first of what I have called “the quadrella of knows”.

Knowing your tracks is really life and death in racing. The most obvious aspects are things like straight tracks and turns, and which are left-handed and which are right-handed, together with the lengths of the straights and the relative ease of these same straights.

For example, the Sandown hillside track does not have the length of Flemington’s straight, but if you watch the horses and you are on a horse which has hit the front at, say, the 300 mark, the race seems to go on for an eternity.

On the other hand, Moonee Valley with its very short straight will not necessarily hand the race to the first horse around the corner. Sometimes I have felt that this latter track is ridden best in sprints by taking off somewhere around the school and kicking like hell on the turn.

However, if you watched the ride of Luke Nolan in the recent Cox Plate, you would have seen a classical example of patience. Why the 2040m of this classic race produces a different style of finish from a shorter race over the same track is not at issue; the point is that it does.

Incidentally, I suspect that the Caulfield 2400m is a far better track to kick away on. Strange, but there you have it. Longer straight, longer distance, and yet . . . it’s odd.

If you live in Perth or if you have an interest in their racing, you would be well aware that with only Ascot and Belmont and their North American style of using one track for an extended period, an understanding of the local scene is essential. Ask Roman Koz, who is particularly interested in the West, or Julian Mould. You just have to know these things.

Vital sign 15 is knowing your riders. Some riders definitely perform better in some circumstances. Without naming names, some leading riders simply ride better at some tracks than they do at others. Some ride sprinters better. Some stayers. Some are very restricted whip carriers, meaning that they cannot carry the whip in “the wrong hand”.

So, if you cannot carry your whip in your left hand, you are going to have a tremendously difficult task on a horse that wants to lay out in Sydney or on a horse that wants to lay in in Melbourne. You are going to have little show of correcting the horse’s crooked path.

You should also have an accurate idea of the weight at which your jockey can ride. You don’t have to do a major study. After a period of time, this will become fairly apparent to you. If it is perfectly clear that a certain rider never rides under 55kg and a horse he wins on today goes up in class and drops in weight next time out, then he won’t be riding it this time. Natural lightweights can enjoy some advantage at the lower end of the scale, but if you pop one of them (for example an apprentice) on a horse carrying 59kg or 60kg, in order to claim some weight relief, it’s just as likely that the horse will still have to carry lead in its saddle bags, because the kid only weighs maybe 50kg anyway.

So, a vital sign of an experienced investor such as yourself would probably be that you weigh up the advantage of a senior rider, riding a horse at 59kg with only perhaps 3.5kg of deadweight, as against a junior claiming 3kg but sticking 6kg of lead into his saddle bags. A vital sign!

This really is the kind of thing that can separate the sheep from the goats in the punting world.

So, we have “knowing your tracks” and “knowing your riders”, and the next one is “knowing your trainers”. You can focus on two or three trainers, as several of my acquaintances do, and follow their plans through the year with a view to being right when they are right. This is difficult of course, when you have a trainer with a very large team. There are simply so many horses going through his or her hands. But sticking to just one trainer, and worse still a large one, can be disastrous when they have their inevitable run of outs.

Basically then, you need to know what your trainers can do best. There used to be a particular trainer in Sydney who was unsurpassed when it came to training two-year-olds. I used to think that he might as well pass them on to another trainer when they came back the next year, as they invariably did little. However, several of us did very well by virtually blindly supporting his two-year-olds at their second and third runs. It wouldn’t be so easy now, because of the barrier trials etc., which are run so frequently and so publicly.

The top trainers obviously are regarded as top because they are either the most successful in terms of winners, or in terms of their winning ratio. You see a lot of terms that the journalists will attach to trainers, indicating that every one of them graduated top of their class and you have to take that with a grain of salt, just like in every other profession. When you see “astute trainer Joe Blow” or “respected trainer Jim Blow” referred to, you just have to discount it. Of course they are astute and respected etc… but so what? Adjectives are cheap. It isn’t hard to work out who the best are, and the premiership tables that are always available in The Sportsman will draw them to your attention quickly enough.

Know your tracks, know your riders, know your trainers, but possibly most of all, “know your horses!”  This one is so powerful it stands paramount over all the others. When you think about it, it’s totally logical because the trainer will be trying his hardest, the jockey will be trying his hardest, the suitability of the track will be apparent, and it comes down to whether or not the horse can win the race.

There were several this year in the Melbourne Cup that simply couldn’t win it. It’s as simple as that. If you project forward a little bit, the Sandown Classic was far more clear cut, and the fact that Zipping, fourth in the last two Melbourne Cups, went off in the black was amazing. The whole episode was even more amazing when it was apparent after 200m that he  didn’t particularly want to be there racing that day. He tossed his head around and generally spelt out to everybody watching that he would rather be somewhere else.

The fact remained that he was classes better than the rest of the field. My point is that anybody that knew this horse also knew that he had lengths on anything else, and they must have thought that their Christmas had come early when they were offered such amazing odds by the bookmakers. Zipping won in spite of himself and his bad mood.

We’ll have to get on with this or we’ll run out of space again. Number 18 in the vital signs is that I would highly respect the person who checks the nominations and then the acceptances. These can tell you the world about a trainer’s intentions for a horse, especially if you are surprised by the race he finally identifies to accept in. It may not be that this is the day, but then it just might be. That’s something experience will assist with. I can assure you that looking up one of the websites and checking on the nominations can be quite a fascinating experience.

Sometimes you feel that a horse is absolutely tailor-made for a certain race and then it doesn’t accept. Whatever you do, search the other nominations and see where and when it does accept. Something is afoot there!

Would you believe we are now only up to vital sign number 19?  That means we still have another seven, so we’d better ask the editor to give us a page or two to finalise all this in the February issue of PPM. If, after the whole 25 have been covered, you want to raise any other issues to do with vital signs, you can always contact me and we can have a look at it in Ask Me Anything.

Until next month then, you’ve got another nine to think about here and we’ve got, as I say, another seven to go. Just to start you thinking, how do you feel patience rates as a vital sign? That’s a good place to pick it up next month.

Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 1.

By The Optimist