No two punters have the same approach to form analysis. This much I have learned in many years of battling away at the betting coalface.

Yet each punter, in his or her own way, uses much the same elements of form analysis to arrive at their conclusions. How they use these elements varies greatly.

My assignment for this article was to seek out and discuss various aspects of what form and race analysis are all about, to draw on the work of international experts, and to try to form some sort of a cohesive picture, or framework, from which a punter might adopt a structured approach.

Ha, not so easy! Where does one start in such a minefield of angles? Well, this current magazine provides us with one or two ideas, and I refer here to the article on finding easy races. Surely, this is a vital cornerstone of any handicapper’s approach – to find the RIGHT races on which to concentrate your attention.

I’ll start by looking at what a horse’s racing pattern can mean. I am frequently asked whether I prefer a certain way of running for a horse; that is, do I prefer horses that lead, or race close to the lead, or perhaps I prefer horses who can settle back and finish strongly?

Generally we can expect a horse to be adopting one of three categories:

  1. Front runners;
  2. Those able to take up a handy position just off the pace; and
  3. Strong finishers who drop back to the turn and then make their bid in the final 250m.

The Mind Games
American professional Lucas Darnley spent five years researching into the psychological reasons for punters failing to win at racing. His conclusions make interesting reading.

Darnley, based in New York, says: “I found a combination of ultra-conservatism and an attitude of sloth was the major reason for the losing betting careers. By sloth, I mean the average punter’s lack of desire to completely look at the form, and his apparent reliance on newspaper tipsters, many of whom have terrible records.

“The attitude of most of those I interviewed was that they saw themselves as inferior to media analysts, and were not confident they could do as well as them, so they placed their trust in them.

“I also found a timidity amongst most punters, an inability to step outside the square and risk-take. They seemed to prefer small, steady returns and a 10 per cent loss over the year rather than a real attempt to beat the odds.”

Darnley’s advice is for punters to (a) believe in themselves and (2) study form relentlessly.

When you are studying form it’ll often be worthwhile to determine into what category each runner falls. In fact, it’s a key point that any punter should take into account, especially where the barrier draw is crucial.

What you need to do is envisage how a race MIGHT be run. This is all you can do. No-one knows exactly how a race will pan out for sure because so many things can happen to ensure the potential scenario is wrecked, such as the expected leader jumping away slowly and being out the back early!

In races up to around 1400m, a horse with the speed to occupy a forward position, without being hard ridden, is usually to be preferred and even more so if the field is a large one, say 13 or more runners.

So keep this in mind. When you study the form for a race up to 1400m, check out which horses are likely to be in the first four early. Decide if they can get up there without exerting too much energy (usually from an inside draw) or whether they might have to work hard out wide.

Keeping out of trouble early, and not being forced to put in an early effort wide out, can be an essential factor. The formguides will help you out on this, plus you can use your own knowledge of what each horse has done before.

Over longer trips, this early pace is not so important BUT it’s still a positive factor if a horse can assume a prominent position and stay on, as against the horse that can stay the trip but does have to finish on from well back at the 400m.

Summing up, then: Preference to on the pace types.

Let’s now have a look at some other elements of form analysis via an article from Barry Meadow in America. His comments are as pertinent to Australia as America.

A race could be packed with first starters, or maybe it’s packed with horses who have only one run to their name, and each might improve or decline second time around. None of the runners has established what they can do, so any conclusions are guesses.

This is more or less the topic I talked about earlier, but a problem because there is no clear outcome. Many of the horses present problems in figuring their running styles; sometimes they go for the lead, sometimes they race from behind, and other times they race evenly. If you can’t get a picture of what might happen in a race, how can you handicap it?

The ratings have every runner within a couple of points, and it looks like one of those races where the whole field is going to be between 7/2 and 7/2. The public is clueless, and so are you.

Barry says he’s not too excited if he narrows a race to four chances and they’re at 2/1, 5/2, 3/1 and 7/2. When he comes up with the same horses as everyone else, to the same degree, he reckons he has no edge.

“Unless I HAVE to play any part in these races, as part of an exotic multiple, I won’t,” he says. “Passing a race becomes no problem if the race falls into one of these categories. I usually only play two races on a typical card, and since I bet two tracks that means roughly four bets a day, though it can vary from zero to eight depending on the cards.”

This is an area of form analysis which worries many of us. Is a good apprentice with a claim worth as much as a senior jockey? The answer is that sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not!

Personally, I always prefer a good senior rider over a good apprentice with a claim. For example, on January 21, at Randwick, I narrowed the main chances to Natural Destiny (Glen Boss), Scission (Danny Beasley) and King’s Pride (Willie Pearson). I knew I could only back two of them if I wanted a decent profit, so one of them had to be ditched.

Which one? For me, it was King’s Pride. I stuck with Boss and Beasley, and they ran 1st and 2nd.

Conclusion: My advice is that if forced to decide, always go for the experience of a senior jockey unless you are absolutely 100 per cent sure the apprentice jockey can do the job.

We simply must give credence to last start form in which a horse has run in the first three placings. The statistical evidence of decades indicates these horses are the ones who get a high percentage of wins.

There will be meetings when the results go against this trend, but mostly you’ll be on safe ground in lending extra “weight” in your analysis to horses that won last start, or were 2nd or 3rd, perhaps 4th, and especially if the placed horses were close-up to the winner. When a horse who ran 5th or worse last start gets up and wins you can almost bet your boots that the placegetters will be horses who were in the first three last starts.

Conclusion: Win and placed form last start is better than unplaced form.

According to the late Ray Taulbot, stalwart of the American turf media scene, the basic principles of sound selecting are few in number. He lists them as date of last start, form, current sharpness, class, weight and distance.

Says Taulbot: “The man who knows how to deal with these few basics can do well for himself without absolutely everything there is to know about horse racing.

“The cold, hard fact that everyone should realise is that no two races are alike. Treat each race as an independent puzzle. Always remember that horses are animal athletes and they are not machines. Third, a horse must be in form before it can beat other horses. Fourth, the more recently a horse has started the more likely it is to run to its best figures.”

Taulbot rightly points out that recognition of, and acceptance of these facts – the elements of form – can improve your selecting strike rate. He also believes that only a handful of races are worth playing each day.

“Only in a race or two can you find a horse that holds a distinct advantage over its rivals,” says Taulbot. “The man who consistently bets his money on horses that do not have an advantage is doomed to ultimate failure.

“What is an advantage? It might be of class, or weight, or form, or sheer ability at the distance, or the track. Remember always – good form, sharp condition and class contribute more toward a winning effort than any other single factor.”

Conclusion: Believe in the basics of form and class.

We now examine the matter of WHAT YOU SEE and what to do with what you see. By this I mean, your observation of races.

Most of us watch racing on TV these days. We used to have to listen to it on the radio. We saw little. Now there is little excuse for not knowing all that that went on in a race.

We have two racing channels, we have a service via TVN that enables you to pick up any race run in Victoria and on the city tracks in Sydney. At your leisure, you can study each and every race.

Play the replay once. Jot down anything that caught your eyes, whether an incident in the running or the performance of a horse, or two horses, etc. Now, run the replay again. Concentrate and check what you saw the first time and look for anything you might have missed.

Two replays and you should have a good idea of how the race was run. Now play it again. Look for unlucky runs, horses forced wide, horses that were blocked or checked, horses that made their runs too late or too soon. Be thorough.

If you can find something that most others might miss then you could be on the trail of a longshot winner.

Use stewards’ reports to help you understand the race. Check what the stewards saw and then see it for yourself. Sometimes the reports can be misleading. The stewards will say a horse was checked, or squeezed up, or was held up for a run, but when you look at the replay it may turn out the horse was way back in the field at the time and could never have won.

Seek and you will find. Do the work, find the winners.

Conclusion: Watching video replays is an essential element of form analysis.

Argument will always rage over the value of the barrier draw. The fact is that it’s important in some races and not so important in others. Some jockeys say they would love to start from gate #1 in every race, regardless.

There are tracks where wide draws are bad. Ipswich is one. Moonee Valley is another. At Flemington, on the straight track, it all depends on which side of the track is racing the fastest as to which draw, inside or wide, is the best.

Never ignore the barrier draw. Think carefully about how it might affect a horse’s chances. If a speedy type is drawn wide and has equally speedy types in inside gates then you might well conclude it will end up getting trapped wide in a speed battle.

Conclusion: Always show some respect for the barrier draw.

They mean a great deal. Take a look at the statistics. A handful of trainers and jockeys dominate the major racing areas. This has to tell you something!

There are punters who concentrate their attentions on just a few stables. They KNOW that these stables are consistent winners and will win for them more times than they will lose.

On the city tracks, the premiership ladder clearly reveals which trainers are dominant. Use this information when you are assessing a race. Lean towards the winning stables if forced to decide between two horses. The long-term percentage will favour you.

Conclusion: You cannot ignore the better trainers and jockeys.

The best advice a friend of mine gave me was that it’s better to study one race thoroughly than to skim over an entire program. That one properly investigated race may or may not produce a bet but a quick run through of all the races on a card may well produce a number of bad bets!

In your study of form, never be beaten by time. If you do not have the time to spare to carry out serious form analysis, then give the meeting away. Wait for the day when you do have the time for concentrated study.

Remember, it’s your money you are dicing with, and you need to show it respect. After all, you have worked for it. It probably didn’t jump easily into your pocket. Make it work for you on sensible bets.

Your form study can begin once the weights are released early in the week for a Saturday meeting. Start checking out the form from the weights. Prepare yourself for the acceptances on Thursday morning.

The more you put in, the more you’ll get out of the game.

Conclusion: Don’t skimp on your form study time.

These, then, are just elements of form analysis. I hope they have given you a springboard to better selection strike rates.

By Peter Travers