Many years ago when I started on the punting trail, I listened with amazement to Sydney form expert Clif Cary espouse his weight theories to an eager radio audience.

It seemed to me that I just had to learn about the weights and racing and then success would be in my hands.

The reality of the punt soon became apparent and it wasn't long before I realised there was more to racing than just "the weights".

Here I am, some 35 years later, and it's time for some reflection and to consider what sort of advice would I give to a "newbie" punter setting off on the same journey I began so long ago.

E.J. Minnis (The Punt Master) accompanied me on our first visit to Oakbank for the two-day Easter carnival. In the course of that visit, we caught up with two stalwarts of the popular Ausrace Internet forum, Tony Acciano and Michael Duffy.

I took the opportunity to quiz E.J., Tony and Michael for "handy hints" about how to win, or at least break square, at the punting game. This trio of successful bettors possesses an astounding amount of racetrack knowledge.

It was not too long before consensus was reached that the Internet provides today's beginners with a wealth of information that gives them an enormous start, especially with such racing sites as the following:

Newcomers can join in on discussions and ask questions of punters who really tackle their racing betting with great gusto.

Most of the serious punters on those sites have contributed to the ninth degree and a perusal of most of their writings, which are available in the archives sections of the sites, forms the first handy hint I can pass on; go to the relevant archives and read!

Over the years I've learned the hard way that there are some golden rules I must not violate with my serious bets, otherwise I'll be clobbered into punting submission.

The first concerns the issue of fitness: NEVER back a horse first-up or second-up in a handicap event. it's hard enough to beat the handicapper as it is these days without giving away a start in the fitness area. I have no problems with WFA or Special Weights events as the type of horse I am interested in for those races are high-quality gallopers that would usually be carrying more weight in handicaps than their rivals and have beaten the handicapper.

The second also concerns fitness but of a slightly different nature not normally mentioned in most punting discussions. This is horses racing at exactly 21 days from their latest start.

Very, very careful attention must be paid to this type of runner as some prefer the break but others perform terribly, seemingly leaving their form in the stable, or perhaps they have a niggling injury that has kept them away from the track.

One can never be sure unless the evidence CLEARLY shows this horse performs best with the slightly longer break than normal.

Years ago I was enthralled by the finishing bursts of Redwood Park, Magic Ruler and the high-class performer All Shot. However, in the long term, and that's what punting is about, I found another sure way of losing is to regularly back those types that always settle at least midfield or further back in the run.

It's certainly exciting to back a winner that steams home and just arrives on the line, but this type is totally dependent on the early pace being fairly fast. If there's a slow pace early, then kiss your money goodbye.

Stick with on-pacers and frontrunners; they are always where you want them in the run!

The last hint is obvious but if you don't think about it seriously it will pass you by. If you really want consistency of winners, stick to WFA and Special Weights races, where the handicapper has no say.

The even-money for Lonhro or Northerly at WFA is a better bet than any handicap even-money shot in the long run. It's obvious, isn't it!

Regardless of the fact that evens is still evens in both types of race, punters still seem intent on taking the equivalent of a toss of a coin in lower-quality handicaps.

E.J. has studied horse-racing like a man possessed and his advice is this: "I look for horses that have improved at their third run in with the express idea of betting seriously at their third to sixth runs, depending on the distances.

"At 1600m today, the horse must be at the fourth run in, at 2000m the fifth run and at 2400m the sixth run as a minimum requirement."

E.J. strictly warns about betting on first-uppers at 1200m or longer, but at 1100m or less, if a horse is proven first-up, he's prepared to give it the nod when all factors indicate that it is the best horse.

Like myself, E.J. dislikes backrunners, and makes his point with statistics which prove beyond doubt the advantages of betting on on-pace runners (see Pages 18/19 this issue).

He rarely considers selecting any horse aged 7 or older on the flat. On the rare occasions he does, he requires that they have raced within the past 10 days, as "they can lose their fitness edge at an older age far quicker than a younger horse".

Tony Acciano, a dedicated Perth punter and Ausrace contributor, believes that "days between runs" are idiosyncratic, in that each horse has a favoured spell range, thus adopting a blanket approach to spell dates is unfair to some horses. Tony advocates a serious study of each individual horse's race dates.

Jockey-horse combinations are high in his form appraisal. He believes some horses race well for some jockeys. Like E.J., he prefers the third to fifth runs with improvement in finishing position and/or beaten margin as being crucial to backing fit and improving horses.

Tony is also a dedicated mounting yard observer. It's a definite speciality area for him. Along with his own observations, gleaned over several years, Tony has incorporated the findings of Geoffrey Hutson (published in his book Watching Racehorses: A Guide to Betting on Behaviour) into his arsenal and considers it "invaluable".

Michael Duffy is Adelaide-based and he advises that you consider specialising in a certain class of race at a certain racing venue.

He explains: "After some time you will know the requirements for winning under those conditions."

Michael is very, very solid about establishing a punting bank that is for punting ONLY, the keeping of accurate records (this can be very painful when you are losing but is invaluable when you want to study past results) and is adamant that punters should not punt outside their comfort zone.

Michael says you have to feel comfortable with your punting level at all times because a stressed punter is a losing punter.

Every Sunday morning he does a post-mortem "while the memory is fresh" and will honestly admit his mistakes and graciously praise his own good decisions!

Michael's whole approach is based on treating his punting in a professional manner and, as you will note if you read between the lines, there is a similarity with all of us ... we take the punt seriously and are constantly seeking to improve.

Perhaps the final piece of advice worth considering comes from the US punting guru Andrew Beyer, who offers this advice from his book My $50,000 Year at the Races.

"I had achieved my first great year as a horseplayer ... I had become a specialist. From the hundreds of factors which influence the outcome of horse-races, I had identified two or three which could make me a winner," he writes.

Beyer goes on to discuss track bias and speed figures as the main areas where he excelled but in another section of the book he attributes much of his success to the meticulous study he made of trainers and says some of his biggest collects were based on trainer patterns.

Trainer patterns have not been discussed in Australian racing circles to the same degree as in the US, where every move made by trainers is carefully scrutinised, so perhaps for the beginner there is an excellent starting point in this area.

It's worth noting that Beyer did not make his largest profits from the top stables but mostly from the less profiled trainers who had exhibited amazing strike rates under certain conditions.

Readers of PPM and contributors to Ausrace are aware these days that I am concentrating my own betting on Perth racing and WFA and Special Weights races at the carnivals around the country.

I had become tired of the tediousness of wall-to-wall racing seven days a week. This has become my form of specialisation but for the beginner may I suggest you strictly study the words written in this article and then form YOUR plan of attack.

The combined physical ages, years of punting and thousands of hours hunched over formguides of the punters mentioned above, not to mention the costly mistakes made over the years, have taught them what works and what does not and must surely make their advice well worth following.

By Roman Koz