This time last year I was gearing up for a lot of things that didn’t happen. The culprit was a hideous disease called equine influenza, which decimated the thoroughbred livestock industry in New South Wales and Queensland, and put the most terrible shockwaves right through the system. Horses we’d listed for the big races never started.

Somehow, we managed to find the first four for the Melbourne Cup, but some of the very best chances never got off the ground.

Assuming that such a disaster might ruin things again, and we all know what they say about Murphy’s Law, we simply have to soldier on. I remember looking at my 2007–2008 calendars and at the freebies provided by such form guides as Winning Post and Sportsman, along with a whole range of diary entries which were now going to prove pointless. I’m sure many of you have the same disappointing and unhappy experiences in your memory bank.

This season we can expect the Sydney and Brisbane horses to return to Melbourne for their lucrative spring carnival. Regardless of interstate rivalry and all those comments which are tossed both ways (depending on which side of the Murray you live), the carnival was the poorer for not having the northern contingent within its ranks. It probably meant that some carefully laid plans went astray.

Bart Cummings was extremely lucky in retrospect to have our biggest winner of the year, Sirmione, already in Melbourne (he had earlier been in Brisbane). There are probably several such good luck stories; but for every good luck story I dare say there are dozens of the other variety.

I always assume when I write an article like this, at this time of year, but I have a whole lot of new readers. So to you folk, the very warmest of welcomes. May our association be a long and a mutually profitable one! On the basis that there will be people who need to start from scratch, we will do just that.

Of course, if you think that you don’t need these refresher pages, then go on to something far more intricate; but I don’t think it ever hurts to go back over the basics. I once knew an editor who maintained that a large section of his magazine was more or less the same stuff every month, just rewritten. He even offered a challenge to be able to re-present the same article, with the paragraphs mixed into a new order, and that nobody would notice.

Well, I can tell you that in this magazine our readers would certainly notice! The good old emails would run hot. PPM has managed to produce new ideas now for the best part of quarter of a century and we haven’t run out yet. My first suggestion for today though, is one of my oldest: go out and buy a cash diary. Make very sure that it isn’t one of those that skimp on Saturday and Sunday, because for a punter they can be the most important days of the week.

It is absolutely pointless to do that, and some serious investors that I know hunt just a little bit harder and find dateless diaries (see more below), or even nicely-bound little notebooks with a space for the heading on each page. So, for example, if nothing happens on Tuesday, then Tuesday doesn’t get an entry. It means that you can quite often squeeze more than one year into the single diary.

Another technique is to have three diaries. I do this and I have  them colour-coded. It’s probably superstitious, but I don’t have a red one because of the negative connotations (red figures indicate a loss). One of my diaries is for the specific details of my racing investment and that cash diary has to contain a comprehensive financial summary, month by month.

You can of course do this by opening an Excel program on your computer, but to be honest I find the discipline involved in doing it myself, longhand, forces me to think harder and focus more clearly on exactly how I have invested my money during each week and month.

I call this diary “Honest George”. George gets a guernsey because it’s my second name, and again it’s because it forces me, every time I look at the cover on which I have “HG” emblazoned in large permanent ink, to remember that everything I ever enter must be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. For newcomers, let me point out that this is the most fundamental rule in all of racing. Never lie to yourself.

My second diary is called “SEW”. No, I’m not kidding, same modus operandi with the three letters on the cover. They stand for “Sharp Eyed William”. Truly, I was blessed with three Christian names so I might as well use them. William was the third.

Yeah, all right, some new players might want to know the first so we might as well reveal all and let you know that my primary diary, a notebook which I carry in my coat pocket at all times, is called “ Don’s Diary”. It is reserved for the thoughts of Chairman Don, whenever they surface and wherever he is. This diary is the source of many of my articles over the years.

I carry a little voice recorder in case I have one of my blinding 200-watt ideas when I’m in a particular situation where I can’t do any writing. For example, when I’m driving to the Sydney races I have a little voice microphone attached to my lapel and it runs down to my little electronic gadget; on the Sunday I find some time to listen to these remarkable insights, jettison some of them as being either pretty ordinary or worse, but transfer the ones that are worth transferring into Don’s Diary.

To give you an idea, you’re travelling between A and B, listening to the racing sessions, and it suddenly occurs to you that a particular horse is following a very close path to one you feel it followed the previous year. The horse may or may not be racing that day, but all you’ve done is to make a note of it, in order to have another look when time permits. That horse may end up with a large asterisk against its name in the diary.

Another example is when a horse which you thought was a pretty fair chance is scratched and you really don’t know why. Sometimes just a couple of minutes’ industrious search will draw to your attention that the horse has never performed well from an inside barrier, or on this track, or whatever . . . it’s just the way I have for getting my act together about this particular animal.

So we have the possibility of three diaries (they won’t cost you much, try your local Reject Shop or $2 shop, and you will very often find more than acceptable Chinese models).

Ideally, if you make your equivalent of DD an undated diary, it can last you, as I said, for several years. This isn’t as important for the other two, but in this one you’ve got no idea how many times you refer back to one of those incredibly insightful ideas that you had, and now can’t remember.

For the information of younger readers, that gets worse! There’s nothing so maddening as having come up with something that you are sure is really worthwhile so far as a horse’s future chances are concerned, and then to find yourself unable to recall what it was. Nothing matches writing things down to safeguard against this dangerous situation.

Some people like stables. Every August they set up a new one with a minimal amount of entries, sometimes based on horses that particularly impressed them last season, together with a handful of horses that they really think have some potential.

As an example, my very small and select new stable has the Peter Moody mare Riva San included. I may get my fingers burnt, but I think the current $41 is a pretty fair price about her for the Caulfield Cup. With about 200 or more horses nominated for the race, she has already qualified.

She has a lot going for her in terms of what she’s already done, the fact that she lives in Melbourne, the fact that she’s a four-year-old Oaks winner, the fact that she has a top trainer who is “ready”, the fact that she has beaten top males, the fact that she has beaten two top fields at the distance, the fact that she is a nob in wet weather (which is often the downfall of favourites in the week leading up to this race), the fact that she can run on or off the pace, oh that will do!

Did you see my point there? My notebook has all of these comments against Riva San, commencing back prior to the Wakeful Stakes last spring and following her through. I have about 15 other comments against her name, and they are cross-filed by date so that I can go backwards or forwards whenever I want to.

Needless to say, our huge databases are extremely competent in that regard, but I’m talking about a personal diary which keeps me abreast of my own thoughts.

I have about 12 or so horses I’ll be carrying forward. You may ask why I don’t have more, and the simple answer is that every horse racing in Australia is accessible to me as a betting proposition, so I am extremely selective about the few that become part of my stable.

We mentioned Sirmione above, and he is an excellent example, because I carried him forward into the spring with great confidence and then had to withstand a series of disappointments, for one reason and another, in his races leading up to and including the Caulfield Cup.

We have examined these reasons before and this isn’t the place for them now, but suffice to say that it was my diary that kept me confident that this horse was better than he had shown. When he lined up for the Mackinnon Stakes I had 100/1, and I’m told there was still plenty of it around in the week leading up to the big weight for age race. Even if you were too late for that, $61 was plentiful at the jump.

Without my diary, based on my thoughts and observations over the past several months, I’d have probably given up on the horse. But there were good reasons and I had them noted. In the same way, Princess Coup, a perpetual bridesmaid in the spring, will carry over into my diary for this new spring. Unless something goes wrong, the big win is still there waiting, and if that happens then we will be there too!

So gear up for spring with at least one diary, preferably two diaries, and if you can stand it, a trifecta of diaries. You really don’t have to name them, and you can always call them by far less imaginative names; but make a very clear distinction between them. Whatever else you do, remember that word “honest”. Above all the words in the English language, that is the singular most important word for the punter. As with so many of our most wonderful thoughts and phrases, Shakespeare had something to say on the subject:

“This above all: to thine own self be true.”

A few clichés to make my point. If you lie to yourself about your racing, you are a dead duck in the water. Nobody can save you. The truth is, in this dog-eat-dog industry, there won’t be many people who care. Sorry about the brutal honesty, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles and how the bikkie breaks.

Everybody out there wants your money. Racing survives because of the circulation of the dollar. Your dollar is competing with everybody else’s dollar. Your opinion is competing with everybody else’s opinion. One of the very best Australian racehorse judges it has ever been my privilege to know, Bill Whittaker, put it very succinctly for me many years ago, when he postulated that “racing is opinion: there really is nothing else”.

At that time, I remember thinking that it was pretty abrupt, and we did have several discussions at later dates clarifying this viewpoint. I ended up realising that it was one of the wisest comments I have ever heard, and yet it is so simple, so obvious. Without opinion, there really is nothing else.

For example, there can be no betting, and without betting (unless you are a very rich sheikh who can finance your entire country’s racing set-up by yourself) there is unlikely to be the financial support to keep the thing ticking over. The breeding industry might struggle on, but imagine the situation with owners, the majority of them anyway, if you suddenly told them that instead of receiving any money for winning the Golden Slipper or the Melbourne Cup, they would have to make do with a nice certificate! I leave you to think about that one.

Gear up sensibly. You’ve got this magazine in front of you, you’ll get it every month, and assuming you are a subscriber you’ll get a whole lot of extra goodies with it. Sort your diaries out. If you have them from past years, go through them honestly and identify the strategies and techniques which worked for you and the ones that failed. Discard races that you know beat you every year. The Flemington Newmarket, down the straight course with what seems like 300 starters, is a typical example for me.

On top of everything else, I don’t even know which side of the track will be faster, and even if I know that, I still can’t guarantee that my jockey will take my horse there! Clearly, this will not be the view of some readers, and there may even be some of you out there who figure you can crack that race’s mysteries. For me, that would represent something akin to a death wish. My diary says “don’t”.

A small stable, an honest set of diaries, us, and you’re on your way. Enjoy your spring!

By The Optimist