I have always thought that life is unfair in one particular instance. It is unfair so far as its longevity is concerned. We don't get long enough. Human beings have been saying this for as long as they've been around, and until the wise doctors figure out a way to keep us going forever, I guess we're stuck with not having long enough.

But it does seem very applicable to anybody who is involved in racing. You see, there is an additional dimension that has to be taken on board when you are involved in racing, and that is (have you guessed it?) our ability to get things wrong.

When you go to school or even beyond school, you are taught certain things and expected to remember them. You're even expected to be able to reproduce them correctly, maybe not the first time, but certainly the second time and forever after. For example, once you know that two and two equal four, you never have to think about it. Once you know that Lieutenant James Cook "discovered" Australia in 1770, you don't need to try to remember his name. You know it.

However, with racing, you learn something and surprise, surprise, you get it wrong and you stuff it up. After you have stuffed it up maybe eight or ten times, one might think that there is a fair chance you'll start getting it right. But no, the chances are you will stuff up again.

That's racing. In fact, it's how we excuse many of the mistakes we make in trying to select winners. I have sworn never to make certain mistakes again and yet I've gone ahead and made them. I'm still waiting to meet the racing fan who can truly say that he / she is immune to this kind of chronic error-making. And it's why I say we don't get long enough on earth.

If I could get 250 years or so, I reckon I would have eliminated most of my mistakes associated with winner-finding. But if I'm lucky, really lucky, I might get a third or even a bit more than a third of the time I need. Not long enough!

So when I look back on things I've written about racing, observations I've made about racing, beliefs I have held about racing, I see that it has been a definite learning curve, but it has also been very, very slow.
I have read more articles and books on racing than most people. I have been to more racetracks than most people. I have probably written more about racing than the vast majority of people. And yet, I am still learning.

Some people, and perhaps many of my readers, might put forward the idea that this is my job. So it is. But it is also a lifelong obsession, a response to an. enormous challenge. The number of flexible aspects of the racing game is enormous. By this I mean things like a punter's right to his own opinion. So much of the mathematics of the turf is just like any other mathematics, and yet there is that extra awkward element, opinion.

Opinion can be the curse of a punter's life, or it can be his great saving grace. It doesn't matter why, but if he has the ability to select winning horses, based largely on his own opinion, he will probably end up a winner. If not, and this applies to the vast majority of punters, he needs to look elsewhere for guidance and assistance.

This is where I have always seen myself as having a role to play. I believe that the experience I have gained has helped a lot of punters to figure out their own attitudes and to make decisions that have turned a losing hobby into. a profitable investment process.

So where do I find the major shifts in my experience and my writing over the years? Am I able to identify major landmarks in my learning process, points at which I had to travel one road or the other and where decisions had to be made?

Some of the "revelations" are found in my diaries when I look back. They are easy to, identify, usually having large red asterisks or heavy underlines. They are also at times quite embarrassing. For example, you see something that you wrote in 1974 and you had. heavily underlined it, put three asterisks against it, and transferred it to the beginning of your next year's diary. And you realise that you gave it damn-all attention for the next ten or twelve years, costing you money in your own investment process along with forgetting to give it sufficient emphasis in your writing.

I was reminded of this when I read Michael Kemp's article for this month and I saw his observations on wide barriers at Randwick's 1600 metres starting point. While I acknowledge that wide barriers took out the Villiers, and for that matter haven't done too badly in the Melbourne Cup, something I learnt a long time ago tells me that wide barriers never, ever represent value. True, they might win the race. That does not mean they were value.

In fact, my contention would be that if a horse started at 16/1 from barrier 20, an honest appraisal will very likely find that the horse would have started at, say, 12 / 1 or 14 / 1 from barrier 5. The difference in odds is not enough. Nothing is. My point is this: a horse starting from barrier 20 is at an absolutely enormous disadvantage. No ifs and no buts. Watch horses jump. Watch the scramble out wide. If your horse is jumping from barrier 20, it is being asked to overcome a very serious problem.

Forget about how the rest of the race pans out. just think about the first 400 metres. Just think about the rider (and if he isn't a top rider, stop right there). He has one heck of a job on his hands. The only time I will ever consider a wide barrier is when there is no barrier to consider.

Eh? Well, what I mean here is that I will discount a wide barrier when I'm betting pre-post, for the very obvious reason that there are no barrier positions prior to the final acceptances /fields. So when I back Makybe Diva at 50 / 1, I have factored in something for the possibility of a poor draw. If someone offers me 7/1 about her after I know she has drawn badly, experience tells me to walk away. How much more than that 7/1 would change my opinion? My answer, based on my long experience, is "probably nothing".

The eminent English writer Alan Potts makes the point in one of his books that no horse drawn badly is ever value. Some of you will know that he is not necessarily talking about outside barriers, as things are different in the UK. But he is talking about bad barriers and we all know what that means. I'll give you another example.

After all my years I am still coming to terms with having to avoid betting at the Flemington straight track. Frankly, you have to have a pretty loose hold on your overall investment programme if you are prepared to bet on these races. I noticed an entry in a diary of mine from not too far back concerning the win by Notoire during a cup carnival. Some of you will have read my observations on this before: I thought that another horse in the race was the bet of the carnival, if not the season. I got what I thought were tremendous odds about this horse.

My horse won the race down the grandstand side, beating about 18 other runners. But Notoire raced down the other side on his lonesome and won the race - the only race that counted. Clearly the jockeys and trainers had no more idea about the faster side, or the better barriers, than Blind Freddy. But the irritation to me was that I knew that I should not be betting on the straight track at Flemington! I had sorted this all out years before. Yet there I was, needing to relearn it all.

When I looked back on this, while I was preparing this article, I could see the funny side of it all. If my horse had won, I would have brushed aside one of the most vital lessons of my life and rejoiced in my own cleverness. I'd have had a lot of money in my pocket to justify my investment. It's very easy to do an about turn when money is involved, and very easy to conveniently overlook breaking a cardinal rule.

So, I think I can say with a fair amount of confidence that a shift in my racing thinking over the years has been to eliminate all wide barriers. I have not the slightest interest in whether the horse is a "slow starter". I have not the slightest interest in whether the best jockey in the world is on board. I couldn't care less what the horse's odds are. I do not bet on wide barriers. Once upon a time I would: now, to use a popular political phrase, never ever.

I am not going to spend any time defending myself over my pre-post betting. just read what I said above in regard to the small percentage of bet's that I would make in this medium. The gambler in me hopes for a decent barrier draw but I can't be worried about what I can't control, so I must evaluate pre-post prices without this advantage. On the other hand, I can honestly say that in the past ten years I have never had a pre-post bet on anything other than a public longshot. I have to regard it as having a very genuine top chance, and at odds way over its real chance.

Access to really top-quality writing about racing has probably been another massively important influence on the way my racing writing and investment has shifted. In the '60s and very early '70s I read a great many books on racing. Most of them were absolute garbage. People could get away with publishing systems that were a disgrace, a joke, an insult to your intelligence. I remember, when I was living in Canada, purchasing some material from the USA which purported to be highly instructive so far as making a dollar was concerned. It was unequivocal trash, but it took me a while to realise just how bad it was. I even played a couple of the systems while I was in North America, to the great delight of whoever was backing other horses.

When I was living in the UK I read many publications, but the best were the (daily) Sporting Life and the (weekly) Sporting Chronicle Handicap Book. Their analysts were professionals, working every day of the week in an age before computers. I also subscribed to Raceform and Chaseform. These brilliant race reports provided me with up-to-date details of every race run in Britain, right up to and including the previous weekend. Every Monday you received in the mail an updated insert. It had a brand-new index covering the entire season and you simply threw away the old index and locked the new one in at the back of your book.

It's probably a little bit like comparing vinyl LPs with compact discs: analogue and computer digital technology. But what it did do was make me very carefully study the entries for every horse that had run the previous week (and that could cover 25 or 30 meetings). The concentration and the focus taught me something that I have never backed away from: the importance of the horse having done it before.

So when, some seven years later in 1979, I read Stewart Simpson's Always Back Winners, I was ready and willing to be a total convert. I don't think any single factor has ever impressed itself more on me than the concept of having been there and done it.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, I pored over Rem Plante's wonderful landmark book, Australian Horse Racing. His work has been continued by his son Marcel and the team at The Rating Bureau, from whom I draw my Class and Assessments horses for PPM.

Rem's calculations and figures were stunning and were followed not long after by the best book Don Scott ever wrote - and the first. It was called Winning. It was succeeded by a series of excellent books but this was the one that turned Australian racing on its head.

My thinking was changed when I read Scott, but not in the way that probably the majority of punters and investors altered their perceptions. For me, the major revelation was that somebody out there was actually doing it. I have heard the argument put forward that Scott traded on one magnificent win, and never stopped talking about it. While he did do this, he also revealed a great deal about his own methodology.

When he teamed up with Warren Block, Australia saw a new era of mathematical racing analysis.
Block was working in Brisbane prior to moving his entire business to Canberra and then linking up with Scott. Block had produced arguably the best set of racing lectures ever to see the light of day. His was a weekly tutoring programme.

A university graduate, he marked his students' assignments and remained in contact with them. He taught all his students patience and care. I think his major gift to me was his . own frankness about the enormous amount of input that successful racing analysis requires. He never tried to suggest that it was easy. Somebody has to do the hard yards. These days, Block is responsible for the production of Wizard and all its associated racing endeavours.

Finally, I could never write an article like this without mentioning one more major influence on my thinking. An old phrase came to me recently: gone but not forgotten. I was looking at an article by Peter Roberts, in which he wrote at length about something that Statsman had said to him. It was that most systems don't work forever. They work for the life of a group of horses that you are targeting. That is why they will work splendidly for a particular group of horses with their particular traits. And they may not work for the next group; or they may, but any alert systems statistician must move with the times and apply the appropriate analytical and practical rules to whatever conditions are seen to be pertinent.

What I mean by this, and what Statsman meant, is that racing is always in a state of flux. This is why, although you can have some hard and fast rules in place, you must be prepared to apply those rules according to prevailing conditions. It is the difference between the master systems expert and the amateur.

You have to think about this for a while but it makes all the sense in the world, and it explains why a plan can work with a group of horses over, say, a three or four year span, but not necessarily for ever. The processes behind patterns of racing require deep insights that only the best of the systems analysts have ever been able to tap into.

Now and again I have got lucky, but it does seem to me that Statsman “wrote the book" on system analysis. He taught me to think outside the circle. He taught me that a racing system, by its very nature, must be inflexible. He taught me not to place my own interpretations or my own logic on systems, but to rely on the mathematical evidence in front of me.

So at this point in my "racing revolution", I guess I have a foot in two camps (or maybe one foot in each).

One camp is my fascination with systems and what I have learnt along the way about separating them from personal analysis. The other camp is the never-ending attempt to refine and modify my own investment strategies. These two camps are not necessarily exclusive. I like to think of them as part of the great racing journey.

The Optimist