As everybody knows, I oversee an article every month called Ask Me Anything. And punters certainly do! Everything you can think of, and some things you never have, turn up in my pile of emails and in the general postal service on quite a regular basis.  This is the first time I have extended one of the AMAs into a major article of this size.

In fact, when I put the idea to Brian, he suggested that it be extended over two months and indeed it will be.

Frankly, it isn’t one question, it’s about 500 questions all compressed into a dozen very succinct short headings.

It isn’t as if punters haven’t seen these headings before, but I cannot ever remember being asked to address the question of “doing the form” from precisely this angle.

Laurie of Gosnells, WA, emailed me with this one and I asked him if he had any objections to my expanding it into this full-blown examination of the situation.  Laurie agreed, and so immediately below we have his original request.  Following that, in we go! When doing the form, and considering the following factors, how would you rate them in order of importance?

  1. Days since last start
  2. Days since last win
  3. Winning strike rates
  4. Finishing position last start
  5. Form at distance
  6. Barrier
  7. Jockey
  8. Form on track
  9. Early markets
  10. Newspaper tipsters’ polls
  11. Ratings
  12. Trainers

To start at the beginning, I am wondering what readers think about the issue of days since last start.

Simply put, this refers to the number of days since a horse last ran in an official race. The most common period to have elapsed is somewhere between one and four weeks, or seven days to 28 days inclusive. Occasionally shorter.  Statistics will tell you that the vast majority of winners comes from this section of qualifiers, but of course these same statistics will also tell you that the vast majority of horses in the races will have run within that time span.

More systems have been devised around this concept than you have had breakfast or whatever else you can think of.  It seems that, for most of my racing life, I have heard Ian Craig make reference to “Well, it’s the old last start winner within seven again . . .” meaning that a horse has won after having done so within the past week. If only it were that simple. But whenever it happens, there is a little part of you that asks yourself why you didn’t notice it (unless of course you did, in which case you are still congratulating yourself on your superb insight).

Supporting such animals blindly would lead to ruin, but it really is a very significant guide, if it is combined with other leading factors, especially the question of comparative class. Sometimes the connections get quite ambitious and go after something where their horse is now on the limit weight, they tell the world that it has been flying since the previous win, and they sneak away with their tails between their legs when it runs an inglorious 17th. This is one of the traps for young players.

However, every now and again, for whatever reason, a last start winner within seven days finds itself in a very similar field to the one it defeated, and treated on virtually equivalent terms to the previous run. This horse starts to get the smell of a real bet about it.  Even if it goes up very slightly in weight, its current form and the level of opposition may be quite enough to see it home again.

Something you have to be particularly careful of here is when a horse like this receives a penalty, and to compensate for it they replace a fully-fledged jockey with a claiming apprentice.  One of the things I like in a horse which is trying to repeat is for everything to be as near that first win as it can be.  Needless to say there are some very fine apprentice jockeys, but they are apprentices because they are learners and you have to at least cast a cautious eye over such a change.

Depending on which set of statistics you borrow, you will find minor variations in this next comment, but generally speaking a period of 14 to 21 days is about your normal expectation for your average runner between its races.

Backing up too soon (unless they are already proven to be able to do this) is assuming that they have totally recovered from their previous race. Waiting too long cannot assume that whatever form they showed has been retained.

So, I do believe that common sense dictates that two to three weeks is probably a pretty fair thing. Again, the horse’s history is likely to give you some leading clues. This history is readily available these days. You can source it on several free Internet sites, and your genuine specialist racing papers will provide you with enough detailed information to answer your questions here.

As you can see, I have to some extent linked “days since last start” with “days since last win”.  These can be quite different. Looking for a moment at the latter, horses are creatures of habit. Many of them tend to need a run or two to get to their best, regardless of how much work has been pumped into them. Many of them, once at their best, will hold it for the next three or four runs (for a very recent example, have a look at Laura’s Charm, that very reliable Melbourne mare: get your old form-guides out, or go on the net and check her consistency pattern).

Other horses do not seem able to hold their winning form for more than one race, and regardless of the way they won, you can often see that everything in their history says they won’t do it again. This can sometimes steer you off a false favourite and onto a far better conveyance, so never underestimate this kind of information which is so easily available to you.

So far as runs since a spell are concerned, again your best guide is the formguide. It will tell you how this horse returns to the racetrack. If the horse has never won first-up, expect it to go right on failing. Pessimistic? 

Not at all, plain common sense.  Also, watch out for the horse that had two campaigns as a two-year-old, won both its first-up starts, and then as a more mature animal has had (say) four more campaigns without winning first-up. This horse will show as having good first-up form, and you will find commentary saying “goes well first-up”. 

The truth is that it went well first-up . . . but as an older horse there is nothing in its form to suggest that it has remembered how to do this. It is taking longer and in fact it might not be winning at all. You will still see these commentaries advising you that the horse “comes to hand quickly”, when the truth may be that it doesn’t come to hand at all!

So, as to these first two criteria, I will leave them in your mind for a moment. We won’t attempt to rank the overall criteria until we’ve had a look at the whole lot (that means in the April issue). This will also give you the opportunity of thinking things through for yourself, and possibly applying numerical figures to each of the 12 possibilities.

If you were to give them numbers between, say, 0 and 10, the spread might be a bit great. But if you went between 0 and 5, you would end up with a maximum of 60 (and of course a minimum of zero). I have found that assessing between nothing and 5 is far more realistic than allowing a spread of 10, although I’m the first to admit that in my own ratings I’m prepared to go all the way to 100.

On the other hand, you will very rarely find me dipping below about 50 these days (my 1), so I am virtually working on those five levels of 10 to 100. I have to get excited about something to go much above 75, which in the language of 0 to 5 is about 2.5; only halfway up my allotted scale. 

I was prepared to put Makybe Diva well over 80, but even then I was allowing a significant amount of leeway.  I could be guilty of bunching the horses too much, but then when you consider that virtually all races are won by 1/100th of a second or so, you need a perspective on this sort of numeric assessment. So what about the winning strike rate? I know that a lot of systems including some that I have devised myself produce arbitrary levels.

Sometimes this is the result of past analysis, sometimes it is based on a reasonable requirement put on a horse, and sometimes it is a combination of both these factors.  Some systems allow a certain flexibility on this ruling and others are totally unbending. If you want a straightforward, easy system, you might as well decide on the minimum level you will accept and draw a line in the sand.  This gets a little bit more difficult, the higher you place the bar. 

For example, if you demand of your horse that it has won one race in every three it has contested, you are likely to restrict yourself to either (a) a young horse, or (b) a country horse coming to town, or (c) a very good horse.

This is not set in concrete, but if you want to see what I’m getting at here, raise the requirement to 50 per cent win strike rate. Often, you will find that runners in the top two-year-old races don’t have any difficulty with that qualification. Try it again by the time they take their place in the Derby field. Then it will be a different story.  Yet another issue is raised here, and that is whether or not the actual number of lifetime starts should play a role in determining the importance of the win strike rate.  I believe it is absolutely critical.

The number of lifetime starts usually only becomes a really significant guide to overall consistency after it has climbed at least to double figures. A horse which has had five or six lifetime starts and has a high win strike rate may indeed go on winning, but the likelihood is that the price will be cramped anyway. You will find a lot of top punters who, amongst their most important rules, put their pens straight through all two-year-olds, and any three-year-olds which have not had a least 10 lifetime starts.

These same punters are quite often loath to back any three-year-old and they focus most of their attention (and their money) on horses aged 4, 5 and 6. Old geldings sometimes will hold their attention.  If you want to see what an older gelding with a decent record can do, get out your records for the 2006 Cox Plate. That win sobered me up quite a bit and, while we all know that one swallow doesn’t make a spring, it made me do a lot of hard thinking about some of the things I had held sacred. One other point: a far better figure for you to calculate is the win strike rate at today’s distance. More on that next month.

If you want an arbitrary lower WSR, I would suggest that you consider 20 per cent.  It means that your horse has won one race in every five attempts.  This is not exactly scintillating stuff, but if it is city racing, is pretty good, especially if the horse is a 1600 metres+ type. You can draw a long bow from this, and speculate that this horse will probably have 7, 8 or maybe 10 starts in a full preparation, and that it will win two of them. 

I know that’s generalising, but it’s a start. It’s a start at the lower end.  Raise the bar if you want, but I’m looking at the lower end.  OK, where are those two wins likely to be? If I am right in my fundamental belief that horses are creatures of habit, you may be able to spot a trend by looking at the way horses’ previous campaigns have panned out. Best Bets provides a very useful and simple line of figures which gives you a bit of a feel for the way a horse has been performing. It’s a good starting point.

It becomes apparent after not a lot of work whether a horse needs a few runs and then strikes form for three or four runs, whether it comes to hand pretty quickly then tapers off, or whether it’s the kind of horse that doesn’t win out of turn but racks up several places, and once or twice every preparation gets lucky. These latter horses are your each way bread and butter!

We’re nearly halfway in our consideration of Laurie’s excellent set of criteria.  I may have to speed things up a bit next month, because we do want to allocate a points system to the overall picture. However, that will often remain in your hands and it could well be that even Laurie, after reading what we have to stay here, decides that he is going to make his own allocations. I’m going to leave this with you to consider for yourself until then, keeping in mind that while it may seem that we’re only up to number 5, we’ve been dabbling amongst some of the others as well. 

We’ll pull them all together next month, and then stick a few numbers on them.  If you want to contribute, send me an email or drop me a line. Even if we can’t include them in next month’s article, we can use them in Ask Me Anything.

Click here to read Part 2.

By The Optimist