If you are going to have a pre-post bet on the Melbourne Cup, the time to have it is debatable. You can be a lucky Brian Blackwell and pick something at astronomical odds, and who is to say that BB won't do it again?

So maybe when the serious odds are posted, around early August, you should step in and have a small investment on anything you fancy at 100 / 1 or more. Even 50 / 1 will do it, as I did two years ago with Makybe Diva. But you have to have a better reason than ""just a feeling". There has to be some reason, some logic, something that suggests to you that a horse is worth a try.

Nothing, I repeat nothing, is worth a try in the Melbourne Cup in the early days unless it is 20/1 or more, and then you would need to be able to argue it with yourself in front of the mirror, and win the argument.

No other race, in my view, is worth a bet at that early stage. Later on, the Caulfield Cup field will start to look reasonably predictable. At that stage, probably the third or fourth week in September, you can get some pretty nice bets. You can of course fall flat on your face.

Things can happen as they did a few years ago when Lady Whatsername slipped her horse into the field. All good luck to her (and she certainly had plenty), but the horse was not qualified and it is as simple as that. If you supported Lisa's Game (at 100/1), and I know two friends who did, you were entitled to feel very cheesed off.

Especially after one of the most glaring pieces of interference in modern racing history was turned down at the appeal stage. I know one punter who still shakes his head when the subject of that appeal is raised, and I know plenty who still ask why that old horse was ever allowed to start.

Why wait until the end of September for the Caulfield Cup? Frankly, unlike the 3200 metres of the Melbourne Cup, the 2400 metres seems to attract a whole pile of ""wannabes". They want to be in it, and their connections for some unknown reason push on.

By about the end of September, you can usually toss out 10 or 12 of those that are featuring somewhere in the market. That done, you can sometimes identify one or two which have been overlooked. Perhaps a filly that ran particularly well in an Oaks.

Perhaps a four-year-old mare, or a male which has got under the handicapper's guard and is either looking as though it can get the distance against the best, or has already shown as a three-year-old that in fact it can do this.

Arctic Scent in 1996 was my last big achievement in this department, and I got 40 / 1 at the very beginning of October. It's interesting to note that she was trained at the time by Jim Mason, but in all of her preparation she had been trained by Gerald Ryan.

"Spring is here! So the poets have started their joyful poems and songs for thousands of years. It therefore seems appropriate that the Spring should herald the start of a joyous occasion in racing, to wit the Sydney, and then the big Melbourne carnivals.

As a New South Welshman, I really should be parading the glory of the Epsom Handicap, the Metropolitan, and a handful of other races in front of everybody, but I have to admit that the real glory belongs to Melbourne. We have a sensational buildup to the Caulfield Cup, followed immediately by the Cox Plate, then the VRC Derby, then the greatest of all (from a public point of view), the Melbourne Cup, and the Oaks and the QE. Perhaps the Mackinnon Stakes should go in there.

These races represent the finest short period of Melbourne's year. The carnival will range from late Septemberlearly October to sometime in the second week of November. About six weeks. And yet so much happens in that short period! It probably all comes together with the running of the Craiglee, then the Tumbull Stakes, a time-honoured (as they say) test of the best and wonderful guide to the Caulfield Cup. It probably finishes with the Sandown Cup. And we talk about it for the rest of the year.

To my mind, and obviously to the mind of Alan Jacobs, Gerald Ryan is a trainer of absolute genius when it comes to placing his horses. Look at Saxon, Our Sweet Moss, and also Spirit of Tara. His switching of the last-named horse in Brisbane on the Brisbane Cup day was an act of sheer brilliance and it paid off handsomely.

I know that Alan has profited seriously from this trainer and has been trying to do a bit of second-guessing as to whether or not any of the Ryan stable will head south. Gerald doesn't appear to have a two miler, but he may have something up his sleeve. Again, we always have to have a look at Bart Cummings when it comes to stayers. You never know, although it may be that the rest of the field has caught up with Bart.

These are the only two races I would seriously consider having an early bet on. By all means have a small something on the Melbourne Cup early on, but keep your powder dry for any main betting until you have a fairly clear idea of the likelihood of your animal actually racing.

As to the Caulfield Cup, I can assure you that the odds you will get two or three weeks before the race about something you fancy will be enough to keep you very happy. One more point on this: a technique used by one professional punter when he bets in the middle range (which he defines as between 12 / 1 and 66 / 1) is to place half his stake pre-post, and to wait for the day to decide whether or not to place the other half.

He tells me that he has found on occasions that some of his selections are still relatively long priced, and that the TAB is offering better odds than he could get three weeks ago from the bookmakers. It happens.

The three-year-old boys and girls will feature right through the spring. Perhaps the most interesting race for me has always been the Edward Manifold Stakes. It is a Group 2 affair over the metric mile, and some pretty good types win it. It's also quite a good race to have a lash at trifectas and so on.

Just ahead of this, the Ascot Vale Stakes is run. Don't get sucked in to anticipating anything from these three-year olds. Some of them have class written all over them but long-term most of them seem to have ended up just below the very best. It's a race I can't pick anyway.

The Wakeful, for the three-year-old fillies, is the first of the longer.races but you don't often get the winner of the Oaks from, the winners of this event.

On the "Other hand, the placegetters occasionally go on to higher honours. Still talking the longer races, I mentioned the Turnbull Stakes a little further back.

To my mind in this Group 2 event is one of the finest races on the racing calendar and yet you can often find some excellent value.

When you look down the list of placegetters (including winners) it's like a Who's Who of racing. Melbourne Cup winners, Caulfield Cup winners, Cox Plate winners, Mackinnon stakes winners... and don't forget that they can turn around in the autumn and knock off Australian Cups and the like.

The Craiglee Stakes, at 1600 metres, is another one with class written all over it. You can do worse than focus on the kind of runner you will find in this race, so far as the entire rest of your spring is concerned. If you look down the list of the first three placegetters, all sorts of surprises await you unless you have a tremendous memory. Cup winners all over the place. Clearly this is a race full of very serious importance for anybody who wants to make money in the Melbourne spring.

In fact, along with the Turnbull, I would probably think it is the finest of the lead up races. A very close journalist friend of mine has made a practice for many years of studying the results of this race very closely, aligning it with the results in the Turnbull, and making very serious betting decisions on the basis of those two races.

As a matter of fact, my friend goes as far as nominating the Craiglee as the best individual guide race to both of the big cups. I know that he studies it intensely and makes his pre-post bets almost exclusively on the basis of what he sees in those two races. Let me just say that he makes a lot of money from racing and he hasn't got a mortgage.

I'm going to return to these races later on. Meanwhile let's take a look at Sydney.

For me, spring in Sydney really culminates with the Epsom Handicap. It is one of the biggest 1600 metres events in Australia and it also acts as a springboard to horses with pretensions of middledistance greatness.

Some of the finest of Australian horses have won this race, including the great Super Impose which wasn't satisfied with doing it once, as we all know. The race itself has always proved to be a very exciting event, even when from my own personal viewpoint the wrong horse has won the race. What you have to be careful of is getting too excited about a horse which can win over a mile at Randwick, and the next minute it is on a plane or a horse float heading for Caulfield or Flemington.

Have I been a bit rough on Sydney? Possibly so, and there are plenty of professional punters who are going to tell me that it is much easier to make a dollar in Sydney in September and early October than it will ever prove to be in Melbourne in the five weeks after that. The primary interest of most punters, whether they will admit it or not, is in making money. Let's face the truth, Groucho Marx probably got this right when he said that ""money isn't everything, but it's a long way in front of whatever is running second!"

One aspect of Sydney racing which identifies it as probably a better place to make money could be its weather patterns. Do you remember, back in 2000, what time of the year they chose to run the Olympic Games? Exactly. Sydney's weather in September is usually pretty good. Oh, you"II get your wet days, but it seems to me that after many years on the punt, it's Melbourne that can gravely disappoint us with its weather patterns during its racing carnivals. That's just how it is. How many times have you watched the glorious Flemington Derby meeting then woken up Sunday morning to find out that the rain is threatening, or setting in? Again, exactly!

This is a specific race on a specific track, and every now and again the winner goes on to do something down south. I think am right in saying that we're still waiting for any winner of the Epsom in the past three million years to achieve the really big honour. just forget it. It doesn't happen. The George Main Stakes is another 1600 metres event run at the same time at Randwick, the difference being that it is run at weight for age. Classy beasts win this race and they go on to other things.

That really isn't much of a surprise when you consider that you've got a big prizemoney race at the right time in the best horses' preparations. They can sustain their form for the next four or five weeks and that's all that is required from these miler/2000 metres horses. They can do the George Main or the Craiglee, then the Cox Plate, and the Mackinnon, and if they are topnotchers these are the races that are tailor-made for them.

The Metropolitan (I'm sorry to say this) is often a waste of study for any serious punter. But it did produce winners of the Melbourne Cup in the 1950s (four in fact, and there should have been five) but since then, apart from Battle Heights, Analie, Ming Dynasty, Hayai, Te Akau Nick, and the terribly unlucky Natski, the winners of this race have not exactly shone. You might argue that the horses I've nominated were Caulfield and Melbourne Cup winners, and of course you're right. With two notable exceptions in the placegetters, the past decade has not been up to much.

The placegetters Im referring to were the horse made in heaven, Saintly, and possibly the best stayer of the late 1990s, Doriemus. When I look at the list I just made I start making concessions, and I might be being a bit hard on this race. I do think it's a very, very tricky affair and I don't know how people pick the winner. If this is supposed to be about sensible steps to success in the spring, there doesn"t seem to me to be a place for the Metropolitan Handicap. By the way, did you notice that incredible poetry: sensible steps to success in the spring? I must have been affected by those poets that I talked about at the start.

Before I sum up the key races, we really need to look at a key factor behind several races. While Damien Oliver is out injured, so far as I'm concerned Australia has one very clear leader in the riding field. This is Darren Beadman. In Sydney DB is just about invincible so long as he is given the right horse to ride. He is in and out of the stewards room, true, but that is because he is determined to give every chance to every horse and, just like a top racing car driver, he is a precision expert. There are several other jockeys for whom I have a great deal of time, but Beadman may have the edge on them all.

Beadman is not quite the proven jockey in Melbourne that he is in Sydney. For example, I think he still has something to learn about the Flemington straight. I have memories of one or two Derby rides which I thought were less than perfect, and last year in the Melbourne Cup he did not ride Distinction to maximum advantage, so far as I was concerned. I should imagine that if he is given the ride this year, he will ride the horse differently.

The word is around at the moment that the ride may go to somebody else. If the connections are mad enough to bring one of their own jockeys then they don't deserve to win the big race, but should they persevere with Beadman I would have to take another look at my avowed policy of never backing international horses. Darren is a quick learner and he rarely makes the same mistake twice.

So the Beadman factor looms large in the spring. I stress that there are a dozen other riders, including a couple of kids in Melbourne and the usual three or four Sydney aces, all of whom are capable of putting some icing on your cake. But when a rider boots home the best part of 150 winners one year, then repeats it, you have to acknowledge that he is something special. And so ahead of any talk of “key races", I think you should always place an extra tick against top-class horses ridden by Mr B.

I have of course already talked about key races in this rather large exploratory article. Clearly the Caulfield Cup and the Melbourne Cup are not key races. Nor is the Cox Plate. They are the culmination of the season, along with the Epsom in Sydney. Races like the Craiglee, the Turnbult the Wakefut the various Guineas, these are the "'clues" to later events. Steer totally clear of the two-year-olds. Let me re-emphasise this: whatever else you do, don't touch the two-year-olds with a barge pole.

Be wary of the three-year-olds until well into September, and apart from Makybe Diva treat any aged mare with total disdain. Remember the maxim I have offered you for many years: if they haven't done it, expect that they will not do it again. This will save you a lot of money and keep you from a lot of losers. It will certainly unravel some of the key races of the spring, because a whole pile of the usual suspects will show

up and they will have just as much chance as they have had on previous occasions. Needless to say, one of two of them will win something (remember the year Shogun Lodge won the Epsom? I think it had 19 or 20 shots under those conditions prior to that win). And those are the times when you just shrug your shoulders with the comment "That's racing!"

 Look for the group and listed races between mid-August and late September, so far as Sydney is concerned, and kick in halfway through September in Melbourne. Disregard the form of any horse that has not come through one of these two campaigns. Remember (I know I keep harping on it) that horses are creatures of habit, and they are very unlikely to do something positive if they have not done it before.

Naturally this does not refer to races like the Derby or the Oaks, where horses are racing at 2500 metres for the very first time. But when you have horses which have failed at a mile or at ten furlongs (2000 metres), the only way you should ever consider backing them is (a) if you have good reason to believe that their failure can be discounted or (b) if you believe that the odds on offer are simply too good to turn down.

However, regardless of either of these conditions, if a horse has failed at a distance or under certain conditions on, say, three occasions, it is unlikely to be able to perform new tricks today. It may be hard to ignore it, but there is no place for the fainthearted or for that matter the softhearted in the hard world of racing.

Finally, then, I'm going to come down to two races as the key races to follow right through the spring. For that matter, you could do worse than to list every starter in these races and watch its progress for the rest of the season at least. The first, and I'm sure you have guessed already, is the Craiglee Stakes.

This is a race which, year after year, throws up winner after winner. An interesting thing about this key race is that the finishing order is not the ultimate pointer. The clue is simply to have started in the event! And the other race for allcomers is the Turnbull. Only good horses win the Turnbull. I'm blest if I know why it's not a Group 1.

The key races for spring need to be recognised and acted upon. We need to use our diaries to keep tabs on who does what in these races.

Many of them are regarded as lead up races and in being realistic, we must make notes that reflect runs by horses which are not yet at their top.

It is very easy to identify a ""new champion" in Sydney in late August. Every year I make the statement that there will be three or four new "champions" before we've had Father's Day. For those who've forgotten, that occurs every year early in September.

Horses which come to their top quickly, such as Dance Hero, are likely again to be hailed as our next champion, or at least something to be followed right through the spring.

The truth is less attractive every year, or at least nearly every year. That truth is that some horses peak more quickly than others, some horses have a more thorough preparation before they attend the racetrack, some horses only have one race in sight (and if they pick up something else along the way it's often more by good luck than anything else), and some horses just keep promising right through the spring.

We will be looking at the various races which precede the Sydney major carnival and we will do the same thing in Melbourne.

I think it's also fair to point out that some races are tagged with the title of "good guide"' when they don't really deserve it. As a Novocastrian, I'm probably going to be lynched by making the point that the Newcastle Cup is one of those races.

Every year journalists take a ride on the cup for the preceding couple of days, making all sorts of speculative noises, and after the cup is run two or three of the runners are identified as horses to follow through the spring.

I would just love to say that this is the way to travel, but it isn't. Watch out for races which your Miller's Guide quite clearly shows are white elephants. Or red herrings, you can take your pick.

Whichever way you look at it, don't fall for the hype.

By The Optimist