The Optimist talks candidly with two long-time PPM writers, Richard Hartley and Damien Whitchurch, and asks them to identify their vital long-term winning factors.

The Optimist: You've both been with PPM a long time. You're still here. We must all be doing something right!

Damien Whitchurch: Where's the competition? Seriously, though, I never get tired of talking about racing, about racehorses, and particularly about winning.

TO: Well, there's a start. Do you Win?

DW: Yes, long term. I don't know anyone who wins on a given day, but I do know that I have to make enough on six or seven days in the year to make a healthy profit for the year.

Richard Hartley: I'd say that goes for all three of us, judging by what I can remember of our various articles.

TO: Agreed.

DW: I lost for the year 1999. In 2000 I won handsomely. I was assisted by that selection for the PPM Annual, Normal Practice. One horse can make a big difference and I got above double figures three times about that one. At evens, you'd need 50 winners to make what I made on three races.

TO: A timely plug, Damien! Thanks for slipping that one in. So it was a great year?

DW: A massive year. But 1999 wasn't. It was the only year in the past twelve I've lost. It was a very hard year.

TO- Losing sequence?

DW: My worst was 23 losers in a row. It took 14 per cent out of my bank, and shook me up.

TO: So you don't bet level stakes?

DW: No. I bet steady progressive. I am an investor. Why would I stick to level stakes?

RH: Well, you said it. I have always believed that if you can't win at levels you can't win period, but having said that, I also believe that anything that does win at levels can be improved upon.

DW: I suppose this is one of the factors we are here to talk about. I win because I don't crack and I chase my losses mildly. There's no more reason for a horse to win at 4/1 if it is my sixteenth bet at those odds than there was if it was my first bet at those odds, but I believe there is a law of probability and it can usually get me out of trouble.

RH: Please explain.

DW: I mean that Murphy's Law doesn't exist. It's really a probability thing and if you get caught by it, it was a matter of chance. It could happen, so it did. We joke about it, but it isn't a law so much as part of TO's favourite probability maths. There is no such thing as the law of averages, it's the law of probability. If I haven't backed a 4/1 winner the last 15 times I backed 4/1 horses, there's no more reason I can get it home this time than there was any other time.

I still am betting on a 20 per cent chance. But probability statistics suggest that as my sample gets larger I have a better chance of racking up a few winners at those odds. It may not be this one, but it probably could be.

(Notice that word "probable"? It's where we get the word "probability" - TO.)

I am prepared to expect that I can quietly increase my bets because I know that long term, over a bigger sample, my chances improve.

TO: That sample has to be very big, Damien. Bigger than 16.

DW: Yeah, sure, but you'd have to agree that I am on my way. Statistics don't lie, and in most samples of a thousand races, where every one has a single 4/1 runner, there will be about 170 or 180 winners. Not 200 mind, because the odds of 4/1 suggest one chance in five but with an edge to tote or bookie.

RH: I don't have a problem with that at all and 1 can see why it's a "vital factor" for you. You keep your nerve and increase your stakes gently, expecting to be saved when the wins come. My worry is if they don't come. How long
can you last?

TO: I always fancied one of Statsman's plans that probably answers the query, Dick. He set the bank at (say) 100 units, you bet 1 per cent of the maximum point the bank attained, and never regressed. So the first bet is 1, never less, win another 50 and the bet is 1.5, never less, and so on. You can never be counted out in less than 100 bets, and with Damien's 23 losers you'd have been down at the most 23 per cent, but perhaps a lot less, and never more.

Anyone read Brian Blackwell's article last month when he used the RW Wood staking plans?

RH: I used them when I was cutting my racing betting teeth, and they got me out of a lot of bother. Lots of ones, then some twos, a few threes and fours, and all I had to do was (I think) manage a 10/1 winner in the sequence to make a profit.

TO: I just love the way you said "all I had to do".

RH: Yeah, well, I agree they aren't easy and I was losing then, but learning fast. That Wood material is brilliant for what you call young players.

TO: Let's move on and ask a specific question. The vital factor. Come down to one. What is it?

DW: Are we on tape?

TO: You know we are.

DW: All right, then I'll just say that the question is pretty difficult, although I can think of better way to describe it. It's haunted me for years, you know, like a golden egg, like El Dorado or something.

RH: For me it's form. They don't have form, they don't have nix. Everything else can be variable but if they don't have the form on the board, I don't know how anyone can expect to win.

TO: Want to amplify that?

RH: I think it's somewhere in James Quinn’s book that the great handicapper and writer Dowst is cited. Quinn says Dowst wouldn't touch a horse that had less than 33 per cent wins and 50 per cent places, over its lifetime.

Dowst also wanted the horse to have qualified by having a certain number of runs, and for it to be the ONLY one in the field to have those figures.

It's a pretty broad rule of thumb, but it has always struck me as a tremendously important starting point.

I like a horse to have recent form and if I am remembering Dowst correctly he also demanded recency but that might be a wrong recollection. I'd certainly want it!

DW- In that same book, and anyway I have the original, Steve Davidowitz is identified as being the "key race" man. He was also onto track bias way ahead of most. I remember him saying that it comes and goes. Tell that to Sydney and Melbourne bettors!

Anyway, the key race was identified and Steve then followed the four or five that ran behind the winner in that special race. They had the form and they had the ability. I did well with that for a while then dropped off it. Don't know why - it had potential. I must go back and have another look at it tonight.

TO: I can never get clear of Stewart Simpson. After all these years I have never heard of the guy again, yet what he wrote back in the late '70s has indelibly stained all my thinking since. In a nutshell, never back a horse to do something it has failed at and, conversely, always (and ONLY) support horses to repeat something they have done before. EXACTLY. It is a single vital factor that might involve 10 aspects or tests. For example, the state of the track, the weight, the rider, and so on.

But there are so many cases when a horse does exactly what it has done before and romps home at 10/1, or more, I sometimes wonder why I haven't made it a lifetime's study!

RH: It's too general. And anyway, Simpson restricted it to certain classes of animals.

TO: That's true. Quite true. But the idea still holds. And it also gets you closer to winners and placegetters in the big races. How would you have got near Second Coming in the Cup if you hadn't relied on his past record at Flemington, and at 3200 metres?

RH: I didn't, actually, but point taken. I see the merit in the idea, but as a single "vital factor" I wouldn't rate it above, say, the barrier draw.

TO: Well, the barrier draw might be part of the "vital factor". For example, if a horse had won a race on this track, at this distance, in these conditions, with this weight, from this barrier ... what then?

DW: If it was the right odds, in the right class, I'd be in like Flynn.

RH: And so would I, if recency came into play. No, for me it's FORM, and recent form, as the vital factor.

DW: For me it's a MILD PROGRESSIVE STAKING PLAN that sustains you through the bad runs and rewards you when the good times come around.

TO: And for me, it has to be finding the REPEATER - the one that's done it all before.

By The Optimist