With punters facing the prospect of more and more the inevitable outcome is that they're tempted to bet on too many races and study each race with less attention than ever. It's an enormous shame that this happens, but this is the way of racing in the technological age.

Just because there is a lot of racing doesn't necessarily mean that you have to bet on more races than is good for you. The punter of today can control his betting just like his dad, and his dad, did years ago. It's basically a matter of discipline.

The approach should be that if you can't study form to any great degree, then don't bother. Long term, this will pay off. Serious punters know that they need a good formguide. In Australia, there's not a wide choice. The guide that leads the way, and has done for many years, is Sportsman.

It's an essential part of my armoury when I sit down to study form. Perhaps not as much as, say, five to 10 years ago, but still a publication I can't do without.

There are a number of editions of Sportsman each week. The main two are the Midweek and Saturday editions. It's also produced for public holiday meetings, some Thursday meetings and all Sunday meetings.

I very much like the Midweek edition for a number of reasons. One is the availability of the turn and finish photo strips from the main Sydney and Melbourne city meetings. Even with video replays, I find the photos of enormous help in pinpointing various runners, especially the also-rans.

Let's go through a Midweek issue. Pages 2 and 3 contain potted comments from the various trackwork areas of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, with emphasis placed on Flemington, Caulfield, Mornington and Cranbourne. You can often pick up some winning pointers from the comments handed out by the trackwork clockers (Gavan Spain, Jim Meek, Les O'Brien and Deane Lester).

You do have to be careful, though, of falling for the 'morning glory' trackworkers, those horses who can speed over 600ri drop dead over 1000m when the money's on in a real race.

Page 4 contains the Star Bet selections for the major race meetings, plus Hot Shot selections. I don't take a great deal of notice of this page, I must admit, but only because I like to listen to myself and not someone else!

Each major meeting is covered in-depth, from the 'finger sheet' (runners, trainers, weights, barriers, jockeys) lists, to the detailed form (which I'll come to in a moment). I've written in PPM before about the usefulness of Sportsman's Zipform Ratings, which can be found alongside each runner's weight. (The El Greco approach to using the Zipform Ratings was contained in some special features I wrote last year.)

This page of Sportsman also contains the important jockey and trainer statistics for the current meeting. Here you can find out the win and place strike rates for the jocks and trainers. It also has the latest run of cuts of each one (often a MOST interesting statistic that reveals bleak losing streaks).

Naturally, it's the mass of form details that makes Sportsman stand out from its competitors. There isn't another formguide anywhere in the world that presents the form in such a cleverly encapsulated way. The UK racing papers have a format that looks similar but is much more cumbersome to use.

Basically, you can get the form for a horse's last 9 runs, plus a few of its wins in a more limited format. Let's take a look at the information Sportsman provides:

HORSE'S NAME, barrier draw, weight, age, date of foaling, owners, colour, sex, breeding, trainer, racing colours, prizemoney earnings, starts, wins, 2nds and 3rds, placings on fast-good-deadslow-heavy tracks, racing record at the current track, distance wins/placings, track and distance performances, winning distances, first-up and second-up performances, win and place strike percentages.

You then get the Latest Form details, and these are most comprehensive, containing the following:

PLACING, date, beaten or winning margin, track, name of race, prizemoney value, distance, weight, jockey, barrier draw, number of starters, Limit weight, winner's time, sectional time (last 600m), track condition, starting price, name of winner (or 2nd placegetter), weights, other placegetters, 4th and 5th horses, where placed on settling and at home turn.

You can see from this that the form details are concise, vital and highly useful to the punter who takes the time to absorb them.

Having all this knowledge at your fingertips gives you a big edge over those punters who just can't be bothered to delve into the past. If you really want to win, you'll use Sportsman's formlines as your personal 'bible'. You will find that it can pay off in a big way.

Both editions of the guide contain special sections where barrier trial performances for current runners are listed in detail. This is yet another most pertinent form consideration. If you see that a horse has run a barrier trial, you can refer to this section to find the complete record of that trial.

Years ago, punters just didn't have this information available to them. Most were in the dark about the results of barrier trials.

Sportsman's 'camera charts' are one of its best attractions (at least, that's what I think and other punters have told me they agree). The photos are usually clear and accurately captioned, and they're accompanied by the full result of each race, with in-race positions, full margins, stewards' reports, and breeding details.

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Checking out how each horse performed can often help you to track down some longshot winners. I know I've, benefited many times from a horse I spotted in the camera charts. I usually look for those beaten runners (4th or worse) who make up a lot of ground, or those who are caught wide on the turn.

The camera charts are especially useful in enabling you to clearly see how far each horse was beaten. Sometimes, without the 'visual' element, it's easy to shrug off a beaten performance, but when you see just how far 7 or 8 lengths is, your mind can be changed pretty quickly!

We then come to Sportsman's pullout 'At A Glance' Charts, which can be found in the middle of the publication. These bring together all the fields and are set out as follows for each race:

TAB No., form figures, horse, age, barrier, weight, Zipform Rating, number of starts, wins, win placings, place %, average prizemoney total, days since last race, then performances at the track, over the distance and onĀ  last-good-dead-slow-heavy conditions.

Added to all this are sections that tell you which runners like to lead or race on the pace, those that run on, the runners returning after a let-up or a freshen-up, those that have trialled well and which ones have figured in stewards' reports. As well, there're the popular Class Factor panels which show which of the runners are going up in class, and which are going down in class.

At the back of both editions of Sportsman, you'll find detailed listings of all the latest trackwork from Randwick, Rosehill, Newcastle, Flemington, Caulfield, Cranbourne, Mornington, Eagle Farm, Doomben and the Gold Coast.

This section also contains some on-the-spot comments by Randwick track clocker Craig Tompson, one of the most
knowledgeable experts you'll find on Sydney racing. Craig highlights those horses he feels have turned in the best trackwork gallops.

To fully utilise all the information in Sportsman, you have to become something of a form detective. All the clues are there and it's up to you, the individual form assessor, to pick out those clues which are going to lead you to the winners.

Naturally, there are tipsters in the guide. Sportsman's team is led by Wayne Hickson, a most astute judge. Sydney meetings are covered by a panel of six experts, all on Sportsman's staff.

These are used to compile a 'most favoured' column of selections. The Weekend edition contains a liftout section with stories on the day's racing, as well as breeding notes, and bookmaker Mark Read's most interesting and outspoken column.

I can't wind up this appraisal of Sportsman without mentioning the excellent Kiwi Mail column contributed by Jack Petley.

This is found on page 2 and not a week goes by that Petley doesn't pass on pertinent information about NZ racing, and those horses being prepared for Australian racing. This really is 'must read' stuff.

In next month's magazine, I'll be taking a detailed look at the Winning Post formguide, the publication whose profits are used to help underprivileged kids. It started off in a small way a decade ago but has gradually built itself into a formidable rival to Sportsman and Wizard (which also will be featured in future PPMS).

Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.
Click here to read Part 5.
Click here to read Part 6.
Click here to read Part 1.

By Brian Blackwell

PRACTICAL PUNTING - JULY 1999