I was really caught out when fellow writer Keith Roth emailed me recently and asked why I had never written an article with the above title. I simply didn't have an answer, yet it is one of the biggest hurdles any punter has to get over. One of the highest obstacles, one of the most dangerous rivers to cross.

The occasion was a race in Brisbane, when Keith had suggested that a system he is working on could apply to that race profitably My response was that this was a very difficult, even dangerous race to try to come to terms with. When he wrote back and asked me why I had never turned this into a major article, I got to thinking.

What is it? A gut feeling, maybe. Some races just stand up and tell you "I'm not backable", when the majority of punters fall over themselves to bet on them.

Of course, I get them wrong, and they pan out like everyone thought they would, and most people end up happy with the result. But there is something there, sometimes, that sort of pulls me up short and tells me in unmistakable block letters, "DON'T".

Just "don't". No more, usually, just an instinct. Anyway I started to look at the race that I had dismissed out of hand and to ask questions about its runners. Pinnacle callers will recall it: December 10, race 7, Brisbane.

It had Laurie's Lottery, Prince Hakeem, City Hall, good horses all, and about three or four others that could run well. Laurie's Lottery was carrying the grandstand, Prince Hakeem was starting from the road outside the track ... various others were first-up, and some of them had performed well first-up. Others had good track form, and so on.

It reeked of danger to me and I said on the Pinnacle recording that this was THE race to avoid that day, wherever you were betting.

"Don't get sucked into this one", I think I said at the time, You just develop a feel for races that seem at first glance to have a limited number of chances and as you do your work on them, more genuine chances, rather than fewer genuine chances, emerge. This race was thrown into chaos anyway with half an hour to go when the skies
opened, and any poor sods who already had their money on Prince Hakeem were doomed at that point.

So I set about asking if there was, in fact, a position that might be taken about any race. Best selections are the ones that win. "Next best" selections nearly win, or are dreadfully unfortunate.

The rest are losers and we tend to forget them quickly unless we are serious about the whole business.

We all know the bloke at the TAB who makes the most noise, backs winners all day, wears tatty clothes that don't fit, and obviously hasn't got two dollars in his pocket when he leaves. He tells anyone who will listen how (a) he is on a fabulous winning streak because of his own amazing intelligence, or (b) the game is crooked as hell, and a chap he works with told him that his sister's boyfriend, who works for an SP bookie, is taking large bets off a leading jockey's wife, who owes the bookies two million bucks.

Losers at racing are usually determined to stay that way. You can't help them because they don't want to accept that hard work on someone's part has to go into winning.

If I spend 500 hours on a system, preparing it for Equestrian, I am, in terms of the average working week, devoting three months to it. That's a quarter of a working year. And that's after I have decided which way I want to go with it. Idea after idea hits the brick wall, until I find the breakthrough.

I am paid for that, and if you want it, you pay for it too. It didn't come easily. The same kind of thing applies when I make my weekend selections. I know from bitter experience I can have disastrous runs of outs. At one
stage in 1998 I had 16 second placings in a row. Head down, tail up, keep on plodding! I started to see demons though. I saw dangers where before I would have sailed through.

Maybe that wasn't a bad thing, long term. Another learning experience. Another sorting out of any ego that might slip in.

It's a hard business, and with everyone trying to take everyone else's money, I am alone in a den of thieves. So are you.

"Tough luck, Tom, you went so close," says your pal after a near-trifecta just goes down. He is genuinely sorry for you, but not as sorry as if he were the victim. Have you ever watched one of those wildlife programmes where the lions take out a wildebeest, and then the other "victims" all stop running, and simply stand around watching poor old Bruce being torn apart?

"Bad luck, Bruce, old pal, but better you than us." Believe it, that's what they are all thinking. So is there a commitment to be made about any race, that might just might - assist us in expecting the unexpected?

Imagine you could get the result wrong, and try to see how many ways that could happen. If it happens too easily on paper, or in your mind, before the race, then it may well happen just as easily when the race is actually run!

Ask yourself this simple question: Am I being honest about the chances of picking this race result?

This way, you take on board all notions as to what might happen based on what did happen somewhere in any horse's past record.

For example, in that Brisbane race, Laurie's Lottery has failed before first-up three times from six tries, Prince Hakeem has proved unreliable (like it or not, excuses or not, he has - that's a fact), City Fair doesn't win these races, he places, Mulugwa lets you down regularly (and he's older), Mr Newmarket needs a clear run home (15 starters here), Danajiva has failed at this level before, Suitcase won his races when he was younger, Major Victory goes well at Doomben but is an in-and-outer at this level, Forgotten Hero has promised too many times, Arimathea is first-up and might need 1400 metres and some luck from back in the field (this is 1200), Mr Innocent won the Shorts last year and hasn't done a thing since, but he's good first-up and so on.

You can see what I am getting at here. Your instincts tell you that you could work all night on this race and end up with a dozen answers.

The race finally became a disaster area when the rains came, and to refresh your memory, the trifecta paid heaps, with Major Victory (16/1) getting through on the rails to edge out Dash Of Bay (20/1) with City Fair (8 / 1) third and the desperately unlucky Arimathea fourth in at 10/1. He'd have won with anything like a run in the final 300 metres, but he didn't get it, and that proves the point.

A win by this horse was one of my original solutions to the race. The trouble was, I could see all sorts of ways he would be beaten, including not getting a clear passageway. There's no satisfaction in being wrong for the right reasons, and vice-versa.

I could not have imagined Major Victory winning. He'd had a win at Doomben, but not at 1200 metres, and he'd won once in five tries second-up. He had, though, won on soft going (three times), and so later on he was a contender. He'd won twice in the winter but out of town.

One more example. We all love the Cup. We all try to pick the winner. And we all get it right sometimes. And wrong other times.

Did you feel that the 1999 Cup was easy pickings? If so, either you are a genius or a big fibber. Rogan josh made it easier on Saturday afternoon, true, with its win in the Mackinnon Stakes, but before that even the fourth in the Caulfield Cup wasn't a big enough clue to encourage the bookies to offer less than 16/1 and in some quarters 20/1.

Afterwards, I can say honestly that I could see Bart's mind at work, and that RJ was supposed to win the Caulfield Cup too! I also suspect that he was displeased by the ride in that race. But in the big one, I knew I had some show, but I was merely hopeful. I had The Hind running at 40/1 and I thought I had a real 8/1 chance going around. 

That meant one chance in nine of winning. One of the other eight chances, in the form of two English jockeys, took care of my hopes there. I believed that Rogan Josh had a show, and that the well-weighted Laebeel, and
the top stayer Sky Heights, were best of the others. I did not give much chance to Zazabelle, and virtually none to Lahar.

I knew nothing about Central Park. Just that he was a visitor and I would skirt around him. I got it all wrong, but I approached the race like a lottery, because the stakes are so high and you can make a lot of money on it. I have to admit that I did not expect to win, I just hoped to win.

That's okay in the Melbourne Cup, but if you are honest you probably approached it from the same angle. If you really expected to win, God help your betting for the rest of the year!

By the way, in my view, five of the best 10 horses in that field finished in the last bunch. It says it all, doesn't it?

So, try to sense before the race, before even your assessments are made, how the race feels to you.

Is it really a race that you can win on, or one that you just might get lucky with? If it's the latter, trust your instincts.

By The Optimist