Racing, let's admit it, is a cruel mistress. It comes up with all sorts of twists and turns of fate, some of them fortuitous, most the opposite. Racing, linked with betting, can play the cruellest of tricks.

It is this aspect of betting - the often devastating impact of 'bad luck' - that gets to the majority of punters and affects their entire approach to gambling.

Yet it's been my experience that a lot of bad luck is brought on by the punters themselves. The best punters I know are those who work hard and, in the process, make their own good luck.

After all, what is good luck? It's getting the right selection, knowing when to bet and how to bet - and then getting everything going to plan in a race. Bad luck usually crops up when you haven't done your homework, when you bet willy-nilly, and when you give scant consideration to form or your staking.

In other words, you need to get inside your own mind, to sort out your betting tactics, in order to give yourself a fighting chance of being onside with Lady Luck.

Knowing even some of the fundamentals of the game is an advantage. For example, do you know how a bookmaker frames a market, or how he attempts to make a profit on a race? Do you know what an overlay is? Have you any idea of the maths about each price that's offered?

Let me give you an example: The price of 4/1. What does it really represent? It converts to 20 per cent in 'real odds' which means you expect the horse to finish 1st in 20 of every 100 times the race was run.

But will it really win 20 from 100? The actual success rate is that runners quoted at 4/1 will win only between 14.2 per cent and 18.3 per cent of the races. Hans Eisler, a respected Sydney maths expert and author of the excellent book Gambling Into The '90s, reports on a study of 5346 races in which 3204 runners started at 15/4 or 4/1.

Those at 15 / 4 with names starting from A to L were included as though they were 7/2 shots. Those names starting with letters in the second half of the alphabet were included with the 4/1 chances.

There were 532 winners, or 16.61 per cent. Now, in a 110 per cent market, says Eisler, the actual Gambling Dollar (GD) for the punter with this scenario is valued at 90.9 cents. In a 130 per cent market, it's only 77 cents. A 116 per cent market, which translates to totalisator divvies, gives a GD of 86 cents.

Says Eisler: "It also shows that the real odds at 4/1 ought to be 5/1, or 16.61 per cent, about one in six. Therefore, the odds are that a runner starting at 4/1 with a betting market of 116 per cent will lose five races in six.

"If, somehow, a punter can obtain 5/1 for a runner starting at 4/1, then this punter shows a personal GD of 100 cents." That is, break even.

So prices by themselves contain a hidden 'cruel trick' in that they mislead the unwitting punter, who might believe they represent the 'true' chance of a horse in a race. This is where you need to be a clever punter. It's your task to tackle pricing head-on and by use of your knowledge and common sense come up with pricing that DOES reflect sufficient true chances to enable you to secure enough value prices to beat the game!

Of course, knowing about chance and pricing is only one aspect of the racing conundrum.

There are many, many more factors that you need to get right in your head, to avoid cruel tricks being repeated too often on you!

P.P.M. expert John O'Sullevan has crafted out a nice living from racing for some years now. He says: "There are several types of races I will never bet on. I will not bet on poor-class Saturday races. There are too many upsets because of the nature of the composition of the fields.

"Events 'for horses that have won only one metropolitan race' . . . that sort of thing. It usually means one or two horses with no worthwhile form will dominate the betting. I'm damned if I am going to back horses like this at 6/4!

"Also, I don't like to bet on midweek Welters. I find them absolute trap races and, again, there is usually a short-priced favourite that runs like a camel and one of the six chances will romp home at 5/1. It's easy if you can work out which of the top six will win but when you find that there are a couple near the 2/1 or 5/2 mark, then three or four more up to 7/1, you have little chance of making a living.

"Years ago, I fell into the old eachway betting trap. Now I realise that so far as my betting goes, I am much better off betting win only. I admit that occasionally I have a go eachway but the prices have to be right, say between 2/1 and 5/1, and1 always regard the place bet as an extra bet, and 1 do not alter my win stake.

"My thinking is that the bet must be regarded as being separate. I will not be having twice as much on to win. This is a different bet. It's a bet that says I can pick a horse to run 1st, 2nd or 3rd and that you, the bookmaker, are prepared to offer me the top odds in the ring about my chances of doing that."

Our regular contributor The Optimist is more aware than most racegoers of the cruel tricks that lie in wait for the unwary. He bets to a sensible set of rules. He devised them through years of hard trial and error. Today, he is probably the 'complete' punter in the way he goes about his betting.

He says: "I have a list of several things which will make me stop and think about betting.

There are the normal, everyday reasons, the most obvious of which should be a price which is unacceptable. Then there are a host of others."

The Optimist's list, which he suggests you study carefully, is as follows:

• Always be prepared to pass up an unintelligible race, one that you simply can't unscramble.
• Always be prepared to go a day, or a week, without a bet if the prices or the horses aren't right.
• Always be prepared to break your own rules, if rationally you are certain that there is a completely abnormal situation pertaining and that you can take advantage of it.
• Have a plan, have a sincere approach. It may be one that requires you to stick within distance limitations, or to bet only on dry tracks, or at certain tracks.

My own view is that for consistent results you must follow consistent horses. Simple as that. It's what I do, though I confess I didn't always do it! But I learned. I went through all the cruel things that happened, and a decade ago I made a commitment to make my betting as streamlined as I could.

There is no doubt in my mind that the best horses to back are those whose wins are frequent and pretty well predictable. The average horse will win, say, about one race in six. I consider anything above that (16.6%) gets into consistent horse territory, and the greater the win percentage, the better the horse can be rated.

Keep all the points I have made in this article in mind and you will be well on the way to avoiding racing's cruel tricks. Not all of them, but most.

By Peter Travers

PRACTICAL PUNTING - JANUARY 1997