One bad run. Always forgive a good horse one bad run, so they say.

So who are "they"? The same "they," who are backing "it" in the ring? You know the spiel: "they are backing it", "they've backed it", "they've put a poultice on it and so forth.

  • The right money.
  • Those in the know.
  • Smart punters.
  • Shrewd judges.
  • Astute (that ridiculous word) investors.

And maybe worst of all, "dashing bookmaker X or Y has reported a big bet on it".

Frankly, the collective "they," is a non-existent term formed out of the imaginations of people who want you to believe that they are "in the know" and have something to say to justify their being paid to talk to you.

Their info is usually a gigantic waste of space, and the "they" referred to is me, or you, or Batman, or whoever else has had a bet on a horse and forced the price in a bit. I may not know the horse's connections, or the rider, or for that matter anything about racing. But if I force a horse's price in, I am automatically "they" and I am the astute judge who is providing something for these people to say.

So, if after all that, the horse fails to do the reasonable thing and spoils our party by not winning, what should we do?

After considering the first possibilities (jump from the top of the grandstand, drown our sorrows in a large Black Douglas - can't afford the Glenlivet we were hoping for - or just cry quietly into our hankies), we sit back and take stock.

Clearly the rider was most at fault, followed by the trainer, the owners for misplacing the horse, the spruiker for telling us what a great bet it was, the tipping sheets of the papers for getting it wrong yet again, "they" for betting on it, and the horse for not being a good sport.

Nowhere do "we" feature in that list, of course. It has to be something or somebody else's fault.

Forgive or forget, or forgive AND forget. They are the choices open to us after a loser.

Notice the very significant difference that one word makes? The choice is to go about your business, on to the next race, knowing anyway that 60 per cent or more of the horses you bet on might well go down and that anything approaching a 30 per cent win rate, over a year, is marvellous. A losing run of twenty or so is possible, even probable, with the best of selection plans, sooner or later. Any investment strategist will tell you that they cannot win for their clients all the time.

In fact, in 2001 most investors in overseas share funds suffered losses that were unpredictable and very large. The profits of the previous years were trimmed back, but longterm expectations were unchanged: the facts are that there always will be difficult periods in amongst the good. The overall figures are what matter to the "shrewd" investor. You must ride out the rough, and all racing statistics tell us that there are periods of lean returns, no matter how good the plan.

So, the horse lost. Forget it? Forgive it? Why not have some ground rules in place here?

First, assuming the horse in question was having a run early in a preparation, it is still likely to be on the up. If it won first-up, or ran well, then put in a shocker when you backed it, you have choices open to you. Blame the second-up syndrome (I think that this has gone the way of the dinosaur and the T-model Ford, actually), or think a bit harder and decide whether it is worth following any further.

The easiest way of making this basic decision is to check its past history. I require three campaigns as a minimum. Any less means the figures can be grossly misleading.

Now if the horse's record shows something like this -

FIRST-UP 3:2.1.0
SECOND-UP 2:0.0.2

You can assume that it has not performed well at its second start after two first-up wins, and that therefore this time (the day it lost with your money on it) there was no real surprise when it did not rewrite the history books. Its record at its next run will read:

FIRST-UP 3:2.1.0
SECOND-UP 3:0.0.3

So what is its overall record? If it has only won three races in its life, the conclusion we draw is simple. This horse races best fresh and we would only back it after a spell or a break of some significance (perhaps seven weeks).

If it has won, say, ten races, then nine have been during its two previous preps. That is very, very impressive. Take out its second-up record and its record is even better. It simply does not win second-up!

How about third and fourth starts from the spell? A large number of racehorses commence their winning streaks on their third, fourth or fifth runs after a spell. They have figures of no wins for either first- or second-up. As a matter of fact, that is common. I am aware of investors who restrict their major betting to these horses, and who are not afraid to forget horses after their fifth or sixth runs. They miss a few wins (I know one chap who missed a Melbourne Cup winner because of this rule of his), but they also miss a hell of a lot of losers.

Therefore we make a rule not to dismiss a horse if it lost second-up. There is no "syndrome" here, but many horses don't perform until they have had two or three runs. Of course this is most apparent with stayers, who often start their campaigns with maybe a lazy 1400m race (Tie The Knot is an exception here - he wins them).

Sprinters too, however, can need a couple of runs to get them ready. Even with the benefit of a barrier trial they can still be rolled in their first couple of tries.

Forgive or forget? We have been talking about the "forgive" brigade to date, so let's stick to them then finish off with a swipe or two at those we maybe should forget.

Obviously, if a horse is unlucky, it must be forgiven. Unless it is You-Know-Who, which is unlucky all the way through a campaign and ends up with five placings and no wins and we end up broke. But once unlucky is okay. Forgive, especially if the horse has perhaps gone through unnoticed by the stewards.

It is heartbreaking when you get to the races or the TAB on this fellow's next raceday appointment and find that everyone saw it, nobody tipped it, they all kept quiet, and it opens at 2/1 the win. How can this be, you wail.

"Nobody mentioned this ###### horse this morning, and nobody selected it. The comments said to give it a miss. And here I am with my fat wallet and the so-and-so is paying three dollars!!!"

What now? Well, you know what now, but will you do it? Will you walk away? Will you talk yourself into accepting that stupidest of sayings we hear on radio periodically that "any price about a winner is a good price"? Can your will power and your intelligence overcome your gambling instincts?

Can you forget the horse half an hour before the race after forgiving it fourteen days ago?

The truth is, I used to have trouble with that scenario. Usually I'd look to see if I could maybe use the horse to reel in the quinella, trifecta ... anything.

I have graduated from that school and now I walk away. If it drifts, so be it. The odds will still be cramped. If it opens at (say) 2/1, and drifts to 4/1, it has gone from a 33 per cent chance to a 20 per cent chance in the eyes of the bookmakers and general public. From one chance in three of winning to one chance in five.

If I thought it was a 4/1 chance to start with, then that might be okay. But if I arrived expecting to make a killing by backing an overlay (i.e. at odds above what it ought to be), I would not be interested in getting true odds! I'd want over the odds, preferably a couple of points over. If the horse opened at 2/1 and blew to my preferred 6/1-plus, I might have another sort of a problem for another article, because a drift of that proportion suggests that I am in one corner and Mike Tyson may well be in the other. On the other hand, Mike might not show up and I might still win, but you take my point - I am being told that everyone else in the world thinks I am a nutter for putting anything on this horse today.

And so we are back with the "forget" contingent. It is hard to forget them after waiting a fortnight and being so sure about everything. But in the case above, of course they have to be at least reconsidered.

Forget them if they are perennial placegetters. If they have a record of, say, three wins and twenty-five places in (say) forty races, give them the flick.

But this can be worked to advantage too.

I was anxious to have a bet on Serein in Adelaide in mid January, I reckoned she was a good thing in a weak race. She boasted the proud record of sixteen starts for no wins. I had watched her since Peter Jolly gave her to us as a future stayer of some ability, way back and I thought that this was her chance. Third run back, two screamers for a second and a third at 1200 and 1500 metres, now at her best at 1800 or so. But everyone knew and everyone would be on her, and she needed to be 4/1 or so with her record before any sane person would go near her. And she wouldn't be 4/1, she would be 6/4, so that was that. But the investor always keeps his options as open as he can.

I thought I'd just prowl around the ring and see what was what. Would you believe 4/1? And then some 9/2. The TAB was offering me $5.50, then $5.30. I grabbed the last of the 9/2, then right at the death I had a solid investment at $5.40 (ending up as $5.30) on the TAB. Now this will floor many of my long-term readers, but the TAB was offering $3 the place (seven starters)!

I had expected 6/4 the win and here was 2/1 on offer to run second.

So I had a good bet the place and collected at $2.90, still shaking my head at the unlikely scene - me betting place - as I counted the money.

I was prepared to forget Serein, but something that ticks in a punter's head said "check it out", as we always must. As a result of this "something", I made a most unusual bet for me, and it came off.

Forgive, forget? It depends on circumstances.

By The Optimist