Luck. It's the second most famous four letter word in the world. Or is it the third, behind love and that other one.

Whatever ... luck means everything to punters. Without luck we are usually losers. With it, we can become millionaires. Luck comes and goes, as it did for the connections of the great American horse Barbaro recently.

One minute he's the champion of the world, the next he's got three legs and is fighting for his life, his racing days crushed in a split-second.

What happened to Barbaro cannot be explained in a mere couple of paragraphs. You could argue that the short spacing of Triple Crown races was the cause for his breakdown and subsequent life-threatening injury. We will never know.

As I write this, in late May, the latest reports indicate Barbaro is in excellent condition but still in intensive care at the George D. Widener Equine Hospital.

Some idea of how luck deserted Barbaro can be found in a report from the NBC Sports Network. It says: "So what exactly happened at Pimlico? We know how eager he was to run, considering he bolted through the gate prior to the start of the race. Did that one minute of prerace drama have anything to do with his catastrophic injury? It's doubtful, but cannot be ignored.

"Trainer Michael Matz had placed Barbaro on a well-timed racing schedule prior to the Preakness. His first race in 2006 came on New Year's Day at Calder Race Course, followed 34 days later at Gulfstream Park in the Holy Bull, his first lifetime dirt race. The strapping three-year-old colt was let loose again on April I in the Florida Derby, also at Gulfstream.

"With five wins in his first five races, Barbaro was looking to become only the second undefeated Kentucky Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977 (Smarty Jones in 2004).

"What he gave us was a bit of history, winning the blanket of roses by over six lengths, the largest margin of victory since Assault back in 1946.

"Amidst all the Triple Crown talk, it was off to Old Hilltop for racing's second leg in Baltimore.

"Despite having his star in peak condition, Matz admittedly wondered how the short rest between races would play out. Barbaro was chomping at the bit during the post parade and we all witnessed the prerace excitement of the aforementioned breaking through the gate.

"It's a harsh fact of horse racing that thoroughbreds do break down. Most horses are the regular run-of-the mill $10,000 claimers, but on that rare occasion, as the whole world watches in horror, champions such as Ruffian or Go For Wand go down reaching for that extra thrust.

"Was it too much too soon for such a strong animal? Would Barbaro have won the Triple Crown if there were three weeks in between the Derby and the Preakness, instead of the usual two? All we can do is speculate.

"One angle that not many pundits are delving into is this horse was bred to race on the turf, which is a much easier surface to race on than dirt. One could argue Barbaro would have been a much better horse on grass than dirt, based on his three lifetime appearances on the turf. He also might still be racing."

So that's one angle to luck. For Barbara’s connections it was cruel bad luck. For those punters who backed the horse in the Preakness, it also was cruel bad luck. Another way to get beaten trying to pick up easy money on a superstar. So we get back to the central point: What's the most important factor in horse racing? Speed? Pace? Pedigree? Trainers? No. The most important factor in horse racing is luck.

The noted US form analyst Gordon Pine has this to say on the subject of luck: "Luck is defined as good or bad fortune acquired unwittingly, by accident or chance. "Luck embraces everything unknown to us, including the unknowable. What if a meteor took out the backstretch of Santa Anita during the running of the third race? That would be bad luck, especially if you were a jockey or a horseplayer with a ticket on the early leader, and unknowable unless you were an astronomer/handicapper.

"But that's an extreme example. In horse racing, the element of the unknown dominates the known.

"Look at it this way - there , s a continuum between events which approach certainty (death, taxes, sun rising in the east) and other events which approximate chaos or complete randomness (roulette, dice, politics in the Middle East).

"If horse racing sat on the furthermost chaos side of this continuum, the favorite would win 12.5 per cent of the time (based on the random chances of eight horses in a race).

"If horse racing sat on the furthermost certainty side of this continuum, the favourite would win 100 per cent of the time, pay $2.10 every time, and the tracks would all close tomorrow to avoid bankruptcy.

"Enough is known about horse racing that we've collectively been able to push the level of predictability from 12.5 per cent to 33 per cent. That's 20.5/8Z5 or roughly 25 per cent of the way from total unpredictability to total predictability.

"The other 75 per cent represents luck, chance, serendipity, fortune: in short, the unknown, including the unknowable. Horse racing sits near the chaos end of the continuum.

"What we don't know about the causal factors in any given race is enormous. Is the jockey on #1 distracted due to a fight with his wife last night? Does horse #2 have a touch of colic from that batch of feed yesterday? Did #3 gain an unofficial 10 pound (5kg) weight allowance when he took a dump in the post parade?

"Is there a sinkhole in the chute's track surface right in front of #4's position in the starting gate? What will be the decision of jockey #5 when a gap opens up coming into the stretch? Did the trainer for #6 tell the jockey not to "use the horse" because there's a good spot coming up in two weeks?

"Will #7's jockey decide to go for the lead too soon, thus causing the horse to die in the stretch? Was the speed figure on #8's last race incorrect due to a data error? Did we miss some great workouts for #9 because the clocker was hungover last Sunday morning? And on and on and on..."

As Nicholas Rescher puts it in his aptly titled book Luck, "Luck pivots on incapacity - on the existence of human limits. If we knew what was going to happen, either through predictive power or through effective control over our own destiny, there would be no place for luck...

"The ultimate reason why luck cannot be exiled from the sphere of human concerns lies in the imperfection - and, given the role of chance and chaos in nature, imperfectability - of our predictive foresight. What we don't know, we can't predict.

"And of those things we do know, we struggle to apply the correct weight or meaning. If you're a pace handicapper at a track where post position biases are dominant, all the information in the world won't help you because you'll be blind to an important causal factor.

"The ignorance, error and bias that goes with being human means we work mostly in the dark. Most of what happens at the track is unknown to us.

"Most of what is unknown to us is unknowable in any practical terms. As handicappers, we're like kayakers shooting down a river.

"The overwhelming force of chance shapes our situation, buffets us every which way like the river does the kayak.

"The best we can hope for is a paddle and some skill in using it. We can improve our chances, but if we're upstream of Niagara Falls, it's not going to be a good day.

"Say you acknowledge  that chance is overwhelmingly the most important factor in handicapping. What can you do to take advantage of that fact?

  • Concentrate on overlays. In a highly uncertain environment, you've got to make sure you're getting paid generously for taking the chance involved with trading your money for a ticket.
  • Look for races where the unknown overwhelms the known even more than usual - races where nobody can run to par, races where nobody has run with today's track condition, races full of first-timers at the track, distance or surface. These races tend to be full of longshots with real chances at winning.
  • Learn to take winning and losing streaks with some equanimity. You may be great, you may be terrible, but chances are that your recent fortunes occurred due to factors mostly out of your sphere of knowledge.

"A little humility goes a long way during a winning streak - a little self-confidence goes a long way during a losing streak.

"Do you get annoyed when the halfwits three rows down root home a 20/1 shot that just nabs the last leg of your pick-three? Don't stress. Most of what happens at the racetrack is caused by chance.

"Impressed by your friend's hot streak? He must be a genius - he can't lose. That's this week - check back next week. He's probably in a lucky streak.

"The good news is that, while luck is the dominant factor in the short run, in the long run, luck evens out and the skilled player rises to the top. So, accept your ignorance of the majority of what will happen in a race and concentrate on what you do know. Most of all, good luck."

What we need to do as punters is ACCEPT that luck guides our destiny. You may be the best handicapper in the world, but if luck doesn't go the way of your selection then all that knowledge is for nought.

I have often argued with friends about the importance of barrier draws. Some say it's all important to secure an inside gate, and yet I can point to countless races where horses drawn on the inside have been hopelessly pocketed for a clear run into the straight, and just never managed to get into the clear.

Luck didn't go their way. Another time the seas would part and they'd slip through and win. SOMETIMES. Not always. Depends on luck. What can you do as a punter to try to elude bad luck, or to ensure that luck rides with your choice?

Much as you may hate it, only various form factors will help. Over a lengthy period, the positives in a horse's formline are likely to cancel out bad luck. The more you work on selecting a horse that is very likely to get the luck, and not the bad luck, the more winners you'll find; thus, more horses who race with luck rather than
without it.

A friend of mine restricts himself to backing horses he knows will LEAD in a race. He reasons that a horse out in front, with the others chasing, is not going to be worried by bad luck (providing a seagull doesn't fly in the face of his jockey, or something like that). The bad luck, he says, will be happening to those behind the leader. And that's all to the benefit of his selection.

So maybe that's one angle to use. Study the form, find the front runners with good form, and bet up, knowing you can more or less forget about bad luck coming along for the ride. I'm not saying it'll work but, well, maybe you'll give yourself a fighting chance.

By Mark Merrick