I don’t think any other questions that I’ve been asked about racing come remotely close, in total, to the number I have been asked about systems.

Racing systems represent a way of life for many punters. For every racing system that wins, there must be a least a thousand which do not. The obvious ones which do not win are the ones which are based on either false premises or even stupid assumptions. It’s very difficult to be “clever”, so far as the systems game goes.

Speaking as somebody who has spent most of my life trying to identify and control the factors associated with systems, I recognise the incredibly important need for integrity and consistency. If you are able to trick yourself into believing that something works, without putting in the necessary hours of background preparatory study, then in my view you have no hope whatsoever of winning. The days have passed (if they ever existed), when racehorse systems with no logic to them could find winners; in my view this is very largely due to the advent of the computer, which identifies any horses with real chances in each and every race.

What this does to the average punter is to reduce his chances of scoring with a longshot, because the bookmakers and professional punters’ huge databases and computer networks have taken every major factor into account, and you can rest assured that any horse with a reasonable chance is not going to be stretched in the market. TAB betting might still offer an opportunity for anomalies, and of course because of the nature of horseracing, there will be exceptionally long priced winners most afternoons somewhere.

If you watch the “experts” on your television screen, or listen to them on the radio, you should take note of their selections so that, if nothing else, you come to realise what absolutely awful judges most of them are! And yet here they are again, every Saturday morning, arguing the toss as if nothing happened the week before, when in fact they quite often sent you into eight losers in an eight-horse program.

I’m not trying to be sarcastic here, or superior, or to necessarily have a shot at anyone; but my job as I see it is to talk straight to my readers, and the simple facts are that most of those “experts” don’t do very well. Let me just give you one example without homing in on anyone or at any time. Driving to the races on a recent Saturday morning, I had to put up with one “expert” telling me three – or was it four? – times in a space of two or three minutes that he was “terrified” of some horse or other.

He didn’t tip the horse in his four selections for the race, and incidentally it didn’t run anywhere, but the important thing was that he gave his listeners no clue whatsoever as to what his terror was based on. No, he was just terrified of it. Well, that kind of “cover your rear end” comment is about as useless as they come, but it’s merely typical of what you have to put up with from the media.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Sunday morning presses’ reporting, where you may well get three quarters of the race report focusing entirely on the background of the owners, or on some decision or other associated with the trainer. You can expect no comment (quite often) on the way the race was run, and you can almost make a bet that the placegetters will receive no intention whatsoever.

So, you can have a situation where a horse falls in by half a head and the entire half page spread concerns itself with how one of the owners nearly didn’t get to the track on time, or something equally important, or someone got married, and you will find no summary of the race itself.

The old cynic in me wants you to take this on board when you realise what the alternatives are to paying for a quality and proven tipster (call him “selector” or adviser, if you don’t like the word tipster), and also to establishing your own battery of racing methods, which we call systems. The moment you have a methodology, you are applying systematic investment.

Systems may make many selections in a day’s racing over several meetings, or very few, or even none. I know two racing people who only bet on weight for age races; I know several more (and many readers) who focus on group racing (of course there are more than 200 of these any year, so they are not scarce and the punters are not short of betting material); and I know still other readers who would never, even if faced with the guillotine, bet on anything but the favourite in a race.

The three possible methodological approaches I just outlined above (weight for age racing only, group racing only and favourite betting only), are all regulators and prevent nonsensical reactions and illogical selections. You could argue (but you wouldn’t, would you?), that these are not three systems . . . but they are! How far they are now taken depends on the user, but systems they definitely are. You see, a system does not have to close every gate behind it: rather, it simply establishes a basic set of parameters within which you can work.

Let’s take the first of the three mentioned above, weight for age racing, and turn this one into a basic, logically controlled system or method. In my view, the British have good reason for avoiding handicap races, as so many of their top selectors and writers tend to do. Besides the fact, in my view, that their handicapping leaves a great deal to be desired, they often end up with races that would look better if they were staged in the desert as part of the movie “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Horses everywhere, you know the picture. But I digress. Getting back to the local scene, there is a line of thought that argues “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, and closely aligned to this argument is the one that goes “if it has stood the test of time then it must be a good thing”.  That isn’t necessarily so in racing (we could write a book on that).

There is some argument associated with weight for age racing in having another look at the balance, but there is one thing in weight for age racing about which very few racing aficionados are likely to disagree:

The best horses usually race in the best races, and the best races for the best horses are more than often run at weight for age. 

So, if your system commences with rule one: “Consider only races which are to be run at weight for age, with no allowances and no penalties”, you are probably at least assured of one thing. The chances are that you will be able to assess a group of very good horses against each other, horses whose form will stand up to scrutiny.

Now, let’s say that your second rule eliminates horses that have no form. This makes sense in anybody’s language, and it is a mile in front of most other possible rules for fining a field down. If you were dealing with a handicap, you could logically have a lot more problems with this one, but you can make the fundamental assumption in most weight for age races that the entrants are ready to run good races.

Perhaps this will make identifying the ultimate winner even more difficult, that’s true. But at least you are less likely to have a surprise sprung on you. That it can happen is part of racing. For example, if you think back to the 2006 Cox Plate, the victory of Fields of Omagh came as a long shot “surprise” for that moment, but on reflection, let’s face it, the horse was only doing what it had already done and it was a high-quality animal. This was further emphasised the next year by the win of El Segundo. I’ll leave you to check the details for yourself, but I’m working on the assumption that probably most of my readers know what I’m talking about here.

Form, and more so recent form, can be a little treacherous in a weight for age race if you don’t realise just how fundamentally different it is from a handicap. When you hear about comparing apples with apples and oranges with oranges, and not comparing apples with oranges, that’s what we are talking about when we compare a handicap with a weight for age race.

So, as an example, a horse which meets its rivals on what we call level terms in a weight for age race (e.g. Makybe Diva and Super Impose in the Cox Plate) must be assessed on entirely different principles in a major handicap, where it will be required to concede weight.

Form may be possibly better described as “history” when your system is considering weight for age. So that second system rule could end up being “The horse must have won 25 per cent of its weight for age races and must have won or placed at today’s level”. 

This is not an unrealistic rule for a race such as this. In this country, the likelihood of the horse racing at weight for age more than (say) four or five times in a year is not high, and you are just identifying the ones that have managed to average probably one win in four at the level. Furthermore, you would like one of those races, or at least a placed race, to have been at the level of today’s race (for example, Group One).

If you are prepared to go with me one more step, you could refine this a little further by placing some distance requirement on the animal. I have sometimes found this to be a two-edged sword, because you can miss out on a quite good winner rising slightly in distance for the first time at weight for age, simply because you are asking that it has “done it before”.

Good. We’ve got to one of my favourite rules. Regular readers would have been wondering when this would turn up. Many years ago I returned from a journey to Great Britain with a book by Stewart Simpson, Always Back Winners. It became something of a cult book over the years, and until its reprint in the early 1990s, copies changed hands at quite sensational prices.

I don’t know about Mr Simpson: not a peep has ever been heard out of him since, and who he was or where he is now remains a total mystery. Still, I had another mystery solved for me last year when another of my favourite writers turned up after many years’ absence, so there’s hope for good old Stewart.

Stewart postulated that the only horses which matter in a race are the ones which have done it before. Exactly, precisely, no arguments, totally done it before. Not run second, not had all the excuses in the world, but possessing that wonderful symbol “C” after their name. And he didn’t stop there; he considered the conditions of the race and so forth.

For example, we have just been talking about weight for age, and there is no way Stewart is going to accept something which has come out of restricted class to clutter up the field at group level, regardless of how many course and distance events it has managed to clean up. “Done it before” is, as I’ve indicated above, a total requirement. Not something you can play around with, or bend a bit, or close your eyes and pretend that it did do something that didn’t . . . No, he wants a total, 100 per cent repeat of something which has been done.

With the weight, at the distance, in the class, etc. And so do we, if we are really providing power for a system like his.

There are very few really powerful elements of system design. The last start winner, in certain circumstances, is a hard one to overcome: how many times have you looked back through the racing results next morning, and realised that making a success of the previous afternoon required no more than backing the last start winners?

This happens too often to be ignored and it’s a powerful tool for any punter.

The second powerful element is the one we have just taken into account: “C” after the horse’s name. Again I refer you to your Sunday morning newspaper, and then I ask you to compare your Saturday formguide with the Sunday results.

The likelihood of your finding a swag of “C” winners listed on Sunday is high. Of course, as soon as you do this, because this is a one-off day, you will also see something like “W” or perhaps “B” featuring prominently, but these are more fly-by-night types of observations. The “C” horse is the starting point for all of the Stewart Simpson theories, and even in its raw form it is as likely as not to put in an excellent performance on this, its proven track and distance.

The next powerful element is a highly restrictive one: exactly what kind of race are you going to be looking at? If you are going to be examining every race on every program, you are not setting yourself an impossible task so long as your elimination rules are extensive.

Otherwise, you are going to end up with a huge swag of selections. I have never yet met a successful punter who bets on every race, or nearly every race. The only successful punters as I know are highly restrictive. So if you are going to consider a system which in theory may be applied to any race anywhere, and remember some of the very best ever designed are quite capable of doing this, then your system must have a whole lot of hurdles which the contenders must jump before they have any hope of becoming selections.

Thinking back to some of the plans designed by Statsman, they filled the sort of bill that I was talking about above, but with one or two deft strokes of the brush this great system master was able to eliminate 80 to 90 per cent of races from contention.  Generally speaking, I would think that our third powerful element for our own systems would be to break the number of races under scrutiny back to a few in any meeting. This is often done by such means as prizemoney, quality of the race, number of starters, and so forth.

To generate a fourth powerful element, we can bring into play something that has always been close to my heart. The barrier draw. These days, with the statistics we have, we can get it right most of the time. Let me give you an example. I missed the actual commentary, but a reader sent me a summary of a situation he heard described.

Apparently on the morning of a big meeting, viewers were told that only once in three years had a horse won from barrier 16 at the track over one particular sprint distance (wet, dry, no difference), and that nobody could remember who the horse was anyway.

Ignoring that last part, just a bit of fun, the point was well made. There it is, spelt out in neon lights, that horses drawn practically in the car parks had a statistical chance equivalent to that of the famous Buckley. In my view you can add to that the enigmatic Kensington track’s outside draws, and anything wide at Rosehill.

I am a great fan of the basic system rule which chops out any starter wider than about barrier 5, in any sprint race except a straight event. At the same time, I’m prepared to admit that I do not follow it religiously, and that I have my own modifications (although I never, on pain of that guillotine mentioned above, support a horse from a wide barrier at Rosehill).

Frankly, the simple power rule which says “do not back a horse from a wide barrier” is about as near a fundamental rule as you can get. Of course, you will miss a number of closing winners, but then closing winners often get beaten for a whole host of reasons to do with the fact that they have to pass the field. If they also have to try to find a position from a wide barrier, then unless the race is perhaps 2400m or more, I am very suspicious of their chances.

I haven’t got into trainers, jockeys, and the like here. We’ve held the power of systems to four factors: the last start winner, the course and distance winner, the specific race kind you wish to focus on, and finally (and of course many people will disagree with me about this one’s importance), the barrier draw.

With these four firmly in your possession, your system will always have a basic and fundamental strength to it.

By The Optimist