When we study form, what are we really looking for?

Confirmation that the prerace favourite has the best chance? Evidence to confirm a gut feeling we have about a certain horse?

I guess different punters will provide different answers. I know that the many people I've spoken to on the subject all seem to have varying reasons and expectations from form study.

My own approach is that I am looking for some piece of evidence in the form that will give me an 'edge' over my fellow punters.

In recent times, using the excellent form data from The Rating Bureau, I've honed my skills in detecting 'class' advantages. That is, the advantage one or two horses may have over their rivals in the area of 'class', and especially when the class edge is not accompanied by any significant increase in weight.

I'll discuss this aspect of things later in this series of articles. For a start, I realise that most of you reading this will not have access to The Rating Bureau's form service (though I would urge you consider getting it!).

What you will have readily available, should you wish, are publications like Best Bets, Sportsman, Wizard, Winning Post and, of course, the guides that come free in your daily newspapers.

On the latter point: some of these formguides are most useful and can be all that an average punter might demand so far as form is concerned. The Brisbane Courier Mail’s daily formguides are the best in Australia, possibly matched only by those in Melbourne's Herald Sun.

There was a time when I could heartily praise the Sydney Daily Telegraph but it has dropped its lift out guides in the last year or so, apparently because TAB funding was dropped.

The Telegraph gets its act together on Fridays and Saturdays, when it produces pretty good guides, especially the Saturday edition, though I venture to suggest that this is 24 hours too late for readers to make much use of its details. Punters like to 'do' their form on the day before the meeting, not on the actual morning.

The Sydney Morning Herald's Friday formguide is a classic example of how good a daily newspaper guide can be. It is slickly presented, in tabloid format, and has a fine coverage of Sydney racing, not only with form but with articles from columnists like Darren Beadman and Max Presnell.

But what of the true formguides?

Let's take a look firstly at Best Bets.

Although much of my form study is now done via computerised form details, I still find Best Bets an invaluable guide. Home-delivered on Friday mornings, I use it for my initial look at the fields and the formlines.

The BB guide allows me to quickly ascertain track and distance winners, which runners can act on the expected raceday conditions, and also lets me see the winning distance range of each runner.

All these little points are useful to store away before you move on to the nitty-gritty of overall form dissection. This is where the computer form comes into play, with its class assessments, ratings, and the measuring, eights-wise, of each runner against the others.

Some of you may question the value of a small publication like Best Bets ($3) and you may tend to write it off as something that 'little old ladies' might buy. That may have been true some years ago, but in recent times, the last couple of years, the guide has been developed and streamlined by its new owners.

Example: One section of the guide splits up the runners into four groups - the likely best for (a) on-pace bias, (b) run-on bias, (c) dead/slow conditions and (d) slow/heavy conditions.

For each runner, you can ascertain: Track record, distance record, track and distance record, winning distance range, record on fast, good, dead, slow and heavy conditions, first-up from spell record and second-up from spell record.

Just recently, a 'video' comment has been added for each runner's last five starts. These take the form of comments like: Ran to the line evenly ... Led, kept finding ... battled home well ... never likely ... no luck in straight ... far too good ... and so on.

They are short remarks but they can give you a good idea of the horse's performance in the tiniest of nutshells.

Let's look at a very recent example of how using the Best Bets could have led you to a big winner. In fact, it was instrumental in enabling me to tip the horse on the Practical Punting Daily (PPD Club) Internet site.

The horse I'm referring to is The Shiner, a 7yo gelding from the Mike Moroney team. Now, most punters tended to write him off on the day. He was weighted on 54kg in the Grosby Sprint over 1200m at Moonee Valley on April 17. He was having his first start since September 10 last year, when he finished 10th of 14 at Cranbourne over 1300m, beaten 2.9 lengths.

I, too, was tempted to overlook him. But then the Best Bets statistics alerted me to some pertinent points about The Shiner's form record. These showed a definitive pattern of performance and one that was so strong it could not easily be denied or shrugged away.

Point One: He had raced ONCE at Moonee Valley for a win.

Point Two: He'd raced 10 times at the distance of the race (1200m) for FIVE wins and four placings.

Point Three: He'd had one start at 1200m at Moonee Valley for a win.

Point Four: He'd won THREE times from four tries on the prevailing 'Dead' going.

Point Five: He'd had three previous first-up runs and WON ALL OF THEM.

Here, then, was a comprehensive set of statistics that clearly indicated The Shiner could be highly competitive in the race. He possessed all the form angles that would give you confidence that there was a strong chance of his form pattern repeating itself.

That's what happened. The Shiner raced handy, produced a strong run from the home turn and lasted to score narrowly. The TAB divs across the country were $7.80 and $2.80, $7.60 and $2.50, and $7.75 and $2.60. A very nice result for anyone who had scanned Best Bets and 'discovered' the form secrets of The Shiner.

It can often be that the accumulation of such statistics provides compelling evidence of a horse's claim to being the race winner. Having such details so instantly available, in a handy pocket-sized publication like Best Bets, is a boon to any punter.

Not all winners, of course, will leap off the page as did The Shiner. But you can still find many strong cases to be made out from the stats. Like Confiscate in the Salinger Cup over 1500m at Rosehill on April 24.

This 6yo had won 4 of his 11 starts at Rosehill, he'd won 2 from 5 at the distance of the race, he was twice a track and distance winner and he has solid winning form on all types of rain-affected ground (1 win from 5 on Dead, with placings in the other 4 races, 1 win from 2 on Slow, and 2 wins from 2 tries on Heavy).

Confiscate got up and won and paid odds of around 13/2 on the TAB.

Which leads me to the next moot point. Value. It's all very well using your formguide to find the 'hot stats' horses, but you need to find them when most others are missing them. If you can get odds like those available on The Shiner and Confiscate, then you are truly beating the crowd, and that means your form study, even if confined to just Best Bets, can pay off with just one or two winners.

If you're a TV watcher and more and more of us are thanks to SKY Racing, then Best Bets can be useful in that it provides all the colours for each horse. These are presented in a lively colour graphic format at the front section of the guide. I often use it to help identify horses that finish unplaced.

Another point I like is the presentation of 'winning TAB numbers'. These are usually published on the same page as the statistics on top jockeys and trainers throughout the country, and the lists of claims for apprentice riders.

The winning TAB numbers contain number of wins and, importantly, the current series of losers. Some number can go for ages without winning! For example: On April 24, No. 6 had not won a race in the city for 31 races. And then there was No. 13 with 50 successive cuts and No. 14 with 90!

Form fans who like statistics might care to ponder the following details from this section of the guide. On Melbourne tracks, there were 368 winners from 746 races which carried numbers 1, 2, 3 or 4 saddlecloths. In other words, just on FIFTY PER CENT of the races were won by horses 1, 2, 3 or 4.

On the Sydney tracks, these saddlecloth (or TAB) numbers won 355 from 728 races, or 48.7%. The Brisbane figures were 250 wins from 523 races, a strike rate of 47.8%, while on the Adelaide tracks it was 216 wins from 369 races, a strike rate of 58.5%.

This latter statistic is most revealing, because it shows that Adelaide racing produces a much higher incidence of wins from TAB numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 than in the other three key States. You'll see that close to 60% of races in Adelaide are being won by these runners. A telling factor, and one to keep in mind when you're doing the form.

Overall, in the four cities, these numbers produced 1189 winners from 2366 races, a strike rate of 50.25%. Not a bad statistic to remember when you're tossing up between a horse with one of those numbers (1,2,3,4) and one further down the entries!

These, then, are examples of how even the 'lazy' punter can make use of what is a simple little formguide. It CAN help you to track down winners, just like true professionals do in the course of their detective work.

It's always going to be a matter of how much work you put in and how much you get out of it. One or two hours spent circling key stats in Best Bets with coloured pens may well be enough to enable you to spot some value-priced winners.

The statistics, taken in tandem with the Best Bets video comments, and your own observations, should make you something of a mini expert on form. Used in conjunction with even deeper and broader form study, the
information can be deadly!

If, of course, you feel you'd like to delve deeper into the mysteries and secrets of the formlines, then obviously you're going to need a guide that goes into more depth about each horse's past performances. This is where a formguide like the Sportsman comes into its own. And where, on the computer, services like those provided by The Rating Bureau, or Tafe's Turf Guide, enter the arena. These are the big guns, presenting you with form details that the papers and the smaller guides, like Best Bets, cannot provide.

The Sportsman is the 'elite machine' of the guides. In recent years it has developed a reliable format and has gone from being a twice-weekly publication to one that comes out up to 4 or 5 times a week, depending on which meetings are being held.

For a racing aficionado who loves the feel of newsprint on his fingers, and the thrill of turning pages and pages of form (and I confess I'm one, despite my use of computerised form), the Sportsman is the publication to have.

There is certainly MORE than enough detail in its many, many pages to whet the appetite, and amply satisfy the appetite, of the most voracious of form 'eaters'.

In next month's issue of PPM (July), I'll take you through the ins and cuts of the Sportsman's presentation of form, and fill you in on the areas that should attract your attention, and where you can find those nuggets of information that your fellow punters might miss (and usually do).

Form study using the Sportsman's vast array of statistics is not for those with 'hurry hurry' disease, or those with little patience, but it IS the one you'll like if form analysis is your go, and if you have a keen desire to nail some of those offbeat winners.

Click here to read Part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.
Click here to read Part 5.
Click here to read Part 6.

By Brian Blackwell