This is the second article of a series in which US expert Barry Meadow and PPM editor Brian Blackwell discuss the fundamentals of horse-racing handicapping. Meadow's ideas come from his lifelong pursuit, a successful one, of profit from American racing. Brian provides the Aussie angle.

Brian Blackwell: Last issue we touched on the topic of trainers. Are they so important? Can they lead or mislead us? Personally, I take a great deal of notice of trainers and I can often be swayed one way or the other by who is the trainer of a horse.

Forced to choose sometimes between a horse from, say, the stable of a high-profile trainer and one from a minor trainer, I will swing towards the well-known trainer. Not always, but enough times to make this a significant factor for me when analysing a race.

There are some trainers I have a really soft spot for . . . like Tony Rosolini, Tony Vasil, Colin Little and so on. They are good, reliable trainers when they have a horse in a race which has sound form patterns. Little is very good with first-uppers.

Barry Meadow: Whenever a good trainer moves a horse, either up or down (in class), pay attention (the class movements of the 5 per cent trainers generally are of little interest).

By placing a horse in a particular spot, those 20 per cent and up trainers are giving you a message. A big drop indicates little confidence or the desire to get rid of the horse (in American claiming races), while a step up indicates the opposite.

BB: We can get signals from jockeys, too, be it in city or provincial and country races. just recently, Steven King went to Bendigo for one ride, in the last race of the day. It was a Maiden race, a lowly race, and the horse he was riding had raced only once before.

Now, why was King, a top-flight rider who on the previous Saturday had won the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley, bothering to go to Bendigo for just one ride? Obviously, the horse had a great chance, and that's how it turned out. King brought the horse, Jakodae, home with a strong run down the outside to win narrowly at around 3/1.

I guess this only goes to show that the punter has to be actively searching for clues like this one. I confess that I didn't pick it up and I should have done. Another lesson learned. Leave no stone unturned.

BM: A Jaguar that's in the shop cannot outspeed a Volkswagen that's on the road. Thus the search for horses with good speed/ power/class numbers (ratings) must be tempered by how they appear on form.

In his entertaining book The Odds Must Be Crazy, Len Ragozin, of The Sheets, said that his handicapping turned around when instead of simply betting the horses with the best numbers he began to look for horses who appeared to be rounding into condition.

Sharp, fit horses often outran their numbers, while classy animals whose form was suspect of ten ran worse than projected.

Entire books have been written on this subject (Thoroughbred Cycles, How Will Your Horse Run Today and Form Points come to mind) and there has evolved some consensus on the characteristics of horses which can be considered to be in form.

Among the positives are these:

(a) The horse finished within five lengths of the winner last start, in his regular class.

(b) The horse ran at or near the front of the pack until at least the stretch, or the horse passed several rivals in the run to the line.

(c) The horse has been working regularly with no gaps in the workout lines.

(d) The horse shows no gaps in its racing schedule; if he usually races every three weeks he does not suddenly show a seven-week gap.

BB: Much the same applies in Australia, though the general points that Barry makes differ a little. In the last decade or so, more and more emphasis has been applied to recent form, and good efforts within the last 7, 14 and up to 21 days. Most punters get wary when a horse is coming in after a month or more off.

We know, of course, that there are trainers who specialise in scoring with fresh horses. Brian Mayfield-Smith springs to mind.

BM: To be considered to be in form, a horse should have accomplished at least one of the points I have made.

Conversely, a horse who has done little but run around in the back of the pack, never making a move, can generally be quickly tossed as a contender without a massive class drop; an exception would be the horse who got trapped behind a slow pace and came home in his usual
quick fraction.

Other indications of possible poor form include the addition of front bandages, a class drop after a win or in-the-money finish, the switch of stables from a top trainer to a lowly one, frequent breaks in both the training and racing patterns, a too-fat or too-skinny appearance on raceday, and a sudden lack of speed from a horse who previously was known for quick starts.

BB: Poor form is often easy to spot but we have to be a touch careful. Plenty of horses win who haven't been in the money at their last start, or even their last two or three starts. Then there's poor form in a high-class race, but good form when the horse is dropped back in class.

It gets back to the key point in form analysis: Nothing is what it may seem at first glance. How many times do we see "duck egg" winners? Those horses with 000 before their names. Maybe they did finish 12th last start, 11th two runs back and 14th three runs back ... but what were the circumstances of those races, and how do they tie-in with the current race?

Those zero figures in a horse's form do need to be looked at; you can't just ignore them.

BM: Many trainers prefer to work with only a couple of jockeys. In this way, the jocks get to know the idiosyncrasies of the trainer's horses, often work the horses in the morning, and can be counted upon to ride them.

Others prefer to spread the work around, getting the best jockey available. Knowing this can enable you to figure out why a certain jockey has been listed to ride a particular horse.

The more you learn about each trainer, the more you'll understand why his horses are placed in the spots they are, and how they are likely to do in those spots. Some handicappers go so far as to create a "winners' notebook" by pasting the past performances and results chart of every trainer's wins into a folder.

By studying the folder, handicappers might be able to uncover patterns that may be a bit too subtle for the statistics types.

BB: We're all in agreement here. I have always felt that not enough attention is paid in the formguides to the individual stats of trainers. Sure, we see how many winners and placegetters they have and where they stand on the premiership ladder but that's about it.

We need to know which races they are best at winning, which tracks where they specialise and so on. Racenet website has a very useful facility where you can find out which jockeys and trainers have the best strike rates together.

All you do is type in the trainer's name and the computer-generated system pops up the trainer's best strike rates with various jockeys.

I guess that if we want to analyse trainers in depth then we are going to have to do it ourselves via a database of results that can be interrogated.

I know quite a few serious punters who have databases of results that can be asked just about anything, but these things don't come cheaply.

BM: On the subject of connections, the jockey can be crucial, both in a positive and negative way. A number of my statistical studies have shown that when a high-percentage jockey is added, not only does the horse's win percentage go up but so too does the ROI (return on investment), and vice-versa.

When a horse has little chance, some trainers will give the mount to a struggling jock who might need the money, but when they have a live mount, they'll try to find a stellar jockey.

BB: Same here in Australia. I've never tested the theory but I suspect that if we go back through the form of various horses we will find that  they have gone better for BETTER jockeys.

Just as an example, I looked up a well-known horse of recent years and noted that in his last 20 starts he'd been ridden 13 times by jockeys I would class in the "B" category.

In those 13 runs, there were two wins. In the other seven outings, when ridden by two "A" rated jockeys, there were five wins and two 2nds!

BM: While it's true that horses make the jockey, the jockeys who have proven they can win get the pick of the mounts. The same jockeys dominate the standings year after year. But you usually can't make money on the leading jocks, because the crowd pounds them.

Better to find an up-and-coming jockey, or a jockey from a lesser track who may have plenty of ability but no following.

Sometimes we see that a leading jockey has ridden three or four of the horses in a race last time out. Why is he picking this one today? Sometimes the answer is more subtle than "He had the choice so he might like this one best".

Jockey styles also come into play. Some jockeys are send types, firing out of the gate and daring anyone to go with them. Others are position types who prefer to wait and see what develops.

BB: It's a fact that in Australia the rides of many of our leading jockeys are overbet, and yet they can still pop up on longshots.

Noel Callow is an example. The public loves him, especially at midweek meetings, yet he was able to win on 66/1 chance Tumeric recently.

In Sydney, Corey Brown and Darren Beadman tend to be overbet, while a jockey like Glen Boss is not. Any rider on a hot streak also tends to get the public riding his bandwagon.

It is fatal, financially, to try to back a jockey's every ride because no matter how good they are they are all prone to bad runs. It's easy for 20 or more losers to be accrued, and when that happens the jockey-lover punters are in desperate straits. Nevertheless, a punter has to seriously consider the jockey factor, each and every time.

BM: Like other athletes, jockeys go through slumps. Sometimes it has to do with a change in agents, or the arrival of bigger-name jocks for carnivals, or the jockey's fitness, or troubles at home, or simply his confidence. Again, we're less interested in the why of something than in NOTING it. If a jockey is 0 from 17 rides at the current meeting (carnival in Australia) with no 2nds, avoid him.

The owner is the final part of the connections triangle. While most owners are simply businessmen who write cheques and have little to do with the success or failure of any particular horse, some owners are much more involved.

Some trainers do their best work with a single owner, which could indicate that the owner might be suggesting to the trainer where to place the horse. In general, though, owners are less important than jockeys, who in turn are less important than trainers. In any event, great connections cannot make slow horses run fast.

BB: A horse's potential, and how to spot it, is one of the great conundrums of the turf.

How many of us wish we'd been able to spot the potential of various great horses? Or even just good horses.

Then we have to assess the improvement factor regarding each horse. Faced with the formlines we can easily determine the value of past runs, and we can usually work out a class level, but what then?

How do we determine if a last start winner has any improvement in him and if so will it be enough to cope with a rise in class or an increase in weight?

We are asked to decide the level of improvement for a horse and that's not an easy task.

Personally, I am loath to concede more than a couple of lengths' improvement in a horse from one race to the next. Beyond that I believe it's getting into really unknown territory.

Some horses can make remarkable strides within the space of a few runs but most cannot. The majority will reach a certain level, the level of their ability, and be unable to progress. Others, better horses, can keep improving.

BM: Here's where the great guessing game takes place. Just as two baseball scouts may disagree on the potential of a high-school pitcher, and both may be wrong, handicappers can differ as to potential.

Horses' careers are short, and they sometimes make huge leaps, or regressions, from one race to the next.

You don't make much simply by assuming a horse will run what he ran last time. You make it by PROJECTING IMPROVEMENT.

This is why potential is so important. It consists of two elements: The intrinsic CLASS of the horse, and his POSSIBILITY OF IMPROVEMENT DUE TO CHANGING CIRCUMSTANCES.

NEXT MONTH: Barry Meadow and Brian Blackwell delve more deeply into the angles of potential and improvement, and then move onto other aspects of the handicapping procedure. Don't miss the next article in this series.

Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.
Click here to read Part 5.
Click here to read Part 6.
Click here to read Part 1.

By Barry Meadow and Brian Blackwell