Few horses just win out of the blue. Most will have shown some improvement over their last few starts before winning. In looking for winners, the handicapper's first rule is to look for those horses that have shown signs of recent improvement.

Is this race its first, second or third since spelling? Did the horse improve even slightly over its last start? If so, will it show more improvement today if it is entered in a race over a suitable distance on track conditions it has shown it can handle in the past?

Is the jockey a competent hoop, is the barrier a hindrance or a help to it's running style? Does the weight the horse is carrying give you confidence?

If you can answer YES to all these questions then you have a bettable race if the odds are acceptable.

The same holds true for the horse whose latest start was a predictable win or a close finishing run in which it showed early fast pace or a powerful finishing run. The horse has already proven its form and only needs to maintain it to be a serious threat.

Now consider the horse who was touted as the favourite last start and finished in the second half of the field. In each of its last 4 or 5 starts this preparation the horse has won or has finished second or third.

The competent handicapper tries to find a reason for the horse's loss of form. Perhaps the distance was unsuitable, the field was a stronger class than usual, or the jockey was not able to make the best of the opportunities offered? Maybe the horse was having it's first run at this track and had not adjusted to it's surroundings.

If none can be found in the race results or the steward's reports, more often than not you will find that it is put down to the horse having a bad run and is usually forgiven.

But the reason most times that a horse in this sort of situation loses, is because it returned its best in the previous races, now the form is starting to go off. No horse's good form is permanent.

The loss of form is inevitable with each race that the horse has to fight off hard finishing competitors of equal class. Racehorses are not machines.

Younger horses can hold good winning form through five or more punishing finishes. Older horses can only maintain the same form for two or three efforts, they are unable to recuperate energy loss as quickly as their younger counterparts. They find it harder to maintain their peak of fitness.

If the horse's form is one of all-out effort, and it appears in the warm-up ring with an uninterested, couldn't care less look then you would be prudent to hold your bet, as the horse will probably lose.

One of the worst things that can happen to a horse is to fall or stumble. To the horse a fall or stumble is life threatening. Even the need to avoid a fallen horse or jockey is an experience that will affect any horse's ability to race.

Generally, a horse involved in this sort of misadventure requires at least 2 to 3 starts to regain a willingness to race. Make a note of the horses involved and expect nothing from them in their following races. If, however, your selection was racing forward of the fall and was not involved you can safely say its confidence was unaffected.

The most subtle and least noticed problem in horse racing is the intimidation of one horse to another. Some highly competitive horses will try and stop other horses passing them. The swinging of the head and attempted biting is called "savaging" and, of course, is illegal and can lead to the disqualification of the horse.

Good jockeys can prevent this if they are able to anticipate it quickly enough. Some jockeys will use it to their own advantage by letting the horse go as far as possible without incurring any penalties for himself or his horse.

The really dominant horse does not even need to blatantly display their aggression. Flattened ears, slightly swinging head, glaring eyes and a popping tail are part of the message that will never fail to intimidate a nearby horse.

If the other horse feels sufficiently threatened it will fall back, even through it could beat the other horse if it hadn't been intimidated.

In the warm-up ring a strutting young colt "feeling his oats" comes in and annoys an older experienced mare. If she immediately flattens her ears, swings her head and pops her tail the colt feels intimidated by her. If so, by all accounts, she has already beat the colt before the race has started.

If the mare can repeat this during the race itself, the colt will feel intimidated by her in all their ensuing races together. The only hope he has of winning is for the jockey to get him out of the barriers as quickly as possible and try and stay in front of her.

Like humans, horses have problems when they come of age and sex rears it's "ugly" head. In the pre-race ring if a young colt and a romantically inclined filly start to extend their heads towards each other and generally "moon", then you can scratch them out of your selections; their minds are not on racing but on each other.

Then there is what is called the "Generation Cap". Put simply, it is where a young animal looks to an older animal for leadership, protection and comfort.

A good example is where you have an inexperienced 3yo with ability entered in an open race and his apprehensive whinny is answered by an older horse as they are in the warm-up ring. The older horse is, in effect, telling the younger one that he is there and will look after him.

If the older horse is in form and capable of any speed he will beat the younger horse to the finish post. Even though the younger horse is the faster of the two, he will not pass the older horse who has given Mm the comfort and reassurance.

Once a horse has fallen into this pattern, it will generally take two to three starts for the younger horse to work up enough confidence where he will pass the older horse. 

This occurs at all tracks around the world and is a biological fact which holds true regardless of wins by really good 3yos against indifferent older horses. A 3yo horse who is confident in its own ability and have won races is harder to discourage than the 3yo who is a reasonable horse with ability.

A good trainer will not be quick to re-enter his horse in a similar race unless he feels that the horse can over come the problem of intimidation in it's next outing. With the horse's poor showing last start the trainer is generally assured of goods for his connections.

In such a case the best thing to do is to watch all the horses as they warm up, look for any signs of nervousness on the part of the younger horse. If it can maintain it's cockiness and confidence around the older more experienced horses and has the previous form to back it up then you can profit from this gem of knowledge.

Intimidation is one of the main reasons why 3yo's do so poorly in open races at the start of their 3yo seasons. As they gain in confidence they are less likely to be intimidated by the older horses and consequently race better against them.

There are some advantages to this as you will generally find the intimidated horse when they race against their own age group at their next start are more confident in themselves and will turn in a better performance than previously shown.

Like horses, stables have a look all their own. You are looking for a stable that turns out its charges with polished ready to run eagerness. A successful winning stable is reflected in the presentation of the horse, groom and handlers and their eagerness to win.

A rule of thumb is if the horse and groom look out of sorts and down at heels, then you are looking at a pair of losers.

Don't blame the horse, blame the trainer. Take note of the trainer's name and when a winning horse is moved to his stable then in all probably that horse will start to lose.

Horses are influenced by their surroundings. How they race is dependent on how they are treated and trained. If they are surrounded by doom and gloom then this will be reflected in their willingness to race.

By Steven McAlister