When we talk about 'comprehensive handicapping' we mean an approach to form analysis that attempts to take into account as many key factors as possible.

This can be a daunting task for most Aussie punters. Yet, if we are to take ourselves seriously (even if we're only fun bettors) we should embark on some serious form study.

Fresh ideas are coming in from around the world all the time. Most take distance and form as the base factors then weave in jockeys, weight, class, age, sex, consistency and ability to handle prevailing conditions and the track itself.

But how can a punter get down to the basics quickly without having to spend untold time?

The only advice I can offer is this:

Eliminate most of the races! Yes, that IS the secret of it all. Quite obviously, a punter who has only a certain amount of spare time cannot hope to address each and every race. He has to decide on bettable races.

How many? Not more than three per meeting. Better still pick two. The best races you can find that seem to offer some value. Look for those races with between about 8 runners and 14 runners. Steer away from bigger fields, and forget about races with 7 or fewer runners for the simple reason that they are likely to offer very little value anyway.

Once you have taken the bold step of reducing a program to two races, you can start to see daylight at the end of the tunnel. The task does not seem so mountainous, does it?

Then you can begin what might be termed a 'savage' across-the-board attack on the field. For a start, eliminate the last 3 horses in the prepost betting. They very rarely do any good. So, if you have, say, a 12-horse field, you now have only 9 runners to worry about.

This is the point at which you can begin your comprehensive review. It's time to weigh each runner against the others.

Firstly, sort out the winners at the track. Ability to handle a particular track is an important factor in racehorse research. Some horses are hopeless at some tracks, but brilliant at others.

The more wins and places a horse has on a track the better it is. Circle them in the formguide, or mark ,hem off alongside the horse's name (it's best to use colour markers for this). The next clues are going to be found in each horse's respective ability at the distance of the current race.

Just as you did with the track winners, mark off each runner's ability at the distance. Most formguides do this for you, anyway. But what you have to do is ensure you REMEMBER what you've been told! Make a note of it yourself; that'll help you remember. I always think it's best to jot down such details, even though they are already in the formguide. Alternatively, circle the information with colour markers.

Now, with a good idea of the best track and distance performers, you can move to the Class side of things. Note the Class of the current race. Then check each horse's recent runs. You want to ascertain if each horse is in the right Class.

Has it been racing in similar company? Is it up in Class? Is it down in Class? In handicaps, you can usually spot the horse going down in Class because it will probably be rising significantly in weight from its last start. In the same way, horses going up in Class will usually be dropping in weight, despite good recent form in the lower class races.

Mark off 'right Class' horses in blue. Use red for 'up in Class' and green for 'down in Class'.

Take careful notice of weight drops and rises. Even if a horse is in the right Class, a big weight rise from its previous start can cruel its prospects. There's the old rule to remember that any rise above about 2.5 to 3 kg is going to be a real tester, except when the horse is dropping sharply in Class.

Once you have looked at proceedings thus far, you will have a pretty good idea of which horses interest you. Now look at recent form. The more recent the better.

You are looking for good form. Not necessarily placed runs (1st, 2nd, 3rd) but those performances where a horse finishes close-up to the winner, although unplaced. If you have access to videos, study them thoroughly; seek out the runners who didn't have any luck, yet did well to finish where they did.

If no videos, then try the camera charts in publications like Sportsman, Truth Sport and the Sporting Globe. They're better than nothing and you have plenty of time to look at them.

The runs to look for are the good ones in the right Class, and which correspond with the sort of race the horse is now contesting. The nearer the last start approximates the current race the safer is the form.

Once you have isolated your top 3 or 4 chances - and you should have them well and truly earmarked by now - you can check out barrier draw, jockey, trainer and ability to handle the prevailing conditions.

Form can often be knocked out of kilter by changes in track conditions from one race to the next (good to slow/heavy, for example, and vice versa). Be careful on this point.

The stronger the jockey, the better. The stronger the stable, the better. Nobody likes to knock the battlers, but it's the Oliver’s and Beadmans and Cassidys of this world who ride the biggest share of winners. As punters we must always keep that fact in our minds.

If you have narrowed the field down to, say, two chances and one comes from a powerful stable, and is to be ridden by a top jockey, and the other comes from a not-so-strong stable with an unfashionable rider aboard, then I would always lean towards the power-horse.

In the long run, you are likely to hit more winners adopting this cold-eyed approach, than if you were to let your money ride against the power-horse. Facts and figures speak for themselves. The power-horses won't always win, but they will win enough times to make the decisions worthwhile.

With your selecting process limited to a couple of races, you should be able to more than adequately handle the comprehensive form study I have outlined here. It all comes down to your own subjective judgment in the end, but by looking at all the angles you will have done the right thing by yourself - and your money.

But what if you just cannot decide which one of three horses to bet? You can, of course, multiple-bet the entire trio and that's easily done, provided the prices are right. But if you do not like this approach and you want to concentrate on one horse, what can you do?

Well, the trick then is to get someone else to make the decision for you. My recommended approach is that you use some form of ratings figure. Perhaps the easiest way to get pretty accurate ratings is through the Wizard formguide (for Saturday meetings, anyway).

Let's assume you have three horses very close to each other on your summation of the form. You really cannot separate them. Okay, the race is over 1600m. The Wizard has ratings figures for the last 8 starts for each horse.

Run your eye down these ratings and tick off those that are for a 1600m race. When you've looked at all three contenders' ratings you can see which one has registered the HIGHEST rating. Bingo, that's your selection.

This approach is only to be taken if you cannot make up your own mind. Hopefully, you will be able to make your own final decisions. But, if not, you have to try someone else's and hope to goodness the 'sage' is right!

For your own sake, it's important if you are serious about your punting - to rely on your own judgment as much as you can. Many punters can't or won't. They're content to let someone else steer them in, hopefully, the right direction.

But any punter with serious money to invest, who has taken the time to study form with some degree of intensity, should have faith, finally, in his own power to make the correct moves. Personal faith is the benchmark of any successful person in life, no matter what profession is involved.

The rules, then, are clear and concise. Get yourself a good formguide, study all the aspects as best you can, concentrate on the right horses and the right races. Try to stick with proven riders and trainers.

Make sure your selections have as much in their favour as possible. The more positive points you can find, the more powerful is the selection. It's really simple, in a way.

But in racing you have to dig deep. You need to comprehensively handicap a race to discover the hidden pointers and to avoid the red herrings. 

By Richard Hartley Jnr