We hear enough about the "meaning of life' these days, don't we? But I'm prepared to bet that dedicated punters are more interested in the meaning of form! How do you understand good form? How do you assess one horse against another?

Let's put form in some sort of context: As horses go about their 'job' racing, their physical condition alters from run to run. For one race they might not be fit, for another they'll be almost fit, and for the next they'll be fit. Training regimes can affect this physical condition just as much as the raceday outing does.

Can intricate study of form and training patterns help you to make greater profits, or suffer fewer losses, than the Man who doesn't bother to examine formlines? Often the answer is no, because those who do study form may draw incorrect conclusions! Many base their form assessments on the wrong races, much as scientists have been accused of doing in the "greenhouse" debate (i.e. their computer models were fed incorrect data and so the computer projections were wrong).

My own theory is that only RECENT form has a substantive basis. Some years ago, the New York-based 'speed handicapper' Henry Kuck analysed more th-an 24,000 runners at a wide variety of US tracks and found 3,668 which he said met the definition of what he called "good recent form'. It's interesting to look at Kuck's conclusions.

His working definition of form is this:

  1. Horse must have raced within the last 20 days and must now be racing in a suitable Class.
  2. It must have finished no worse than 3rd last time out, beaten no more than 10 lengths.
  3. It must not be going over 100m or more longer for the current race than the trip it raced over at its latest start.

According to Kuck, these 3,668 form horses represented approximately 50 per cent more winners than he would have expected, based on probabilities, but, alas, they also returned a 16.8 per cent loss on level stakes bets! But the expert refined his approach with elimination and separation rules. Most are applicable to US racing, so I won't go into them here, but we can use Kuck's form theory as an ideal base for our own Australian interpretation of form.

Can we use his findings, in conjunction with other angles, to narrow down a field into main chances? It's very possible. What if we were to combine prize-money earnings, win and place percentages, and price factors into the conundrum? It could well lead you to some very sound each-way propositions.

I believe the element of prize-money earnings, and average earnings per start, is a neglected area of form in Australia. Far more attention should be paid to how much money a horse has earned, and in how many starts he earned it, if we are to get a reliable measure of Class. Sometimes it's just not enough to rely on formlines alone.

Which leads me to a fuller discussion of Australian form, and how to read it, and make sense of it. The Sportsman's formlines are probably the most representative of the sort of formguide that Aussie punters use. Similar formlines are published in daily newspapers, though not in such depth. The Sportsman tells you much about a horse's past performances, though not all.

Unlike in America, the Sportsman does not tell you exactly where a horse was placed at various sections of the race, and how far off the lead it was, or how far in front it was. Many say this is a key failure of Australian form, though we are much better served in the way of turn-and-finish photos than punters in the USA.

We'll look now at the Sportsman's formlines. In order, they list the following details about each runner's various races:

Horse, age, owners, colour, sex, breeding, trainer, training venue, racing colours, prize-money earnings, number of starts, number of wins, 2nds and 3rds, past performances on good, dead, slow and heavy going, previous racing history at the track where the horse is now racing, ability at the distance of the race, distances of horse's wins to date, win strike percentage, place strike percentage.

Then comes the "latest form' aspect of the Sportsman's coverage:

Placing in race (i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc.), date of race, margin won by or beaten by, track, name of race and details, $ value of race, distance, weight carried, jockey, barrier draw, number of starters, Limit Weight, winner's time plus 600m or 800m sectional time, track condition, price fluctuations, name of winner or 2nd placegetter, 2nd or 3rd placegetter, plus their weights carried, description of where placed during the run (3rd settling, 4th turn), summary (struck interference near post, tongue over bit etc.).

You can see that when you boil the Sportsman's form down like this, it takes on a context all its own. It is a most comprehensive guide to how a horse fared in its recent races. There is certainly more than enough information to allow you to dissect each horse, and to compare one against another. In this way, systems are developed, and selections made on racedays.

You can discover the meaning of form by checking out, say, a horse's running position throughout a race, and by the summary made of the run. For instance, a horse could have been, say, 15th settling. 10th at the turn, and finished 3rd, beaten a length. The summary might say that the horse was checked near the 200m, or perhaps was blocked for a run.

Taking these, things into account, you might reasonably decide that this horse could have finished closer had it not been for that check, or the blocked run. After all, it was well back 15th and 10th in the early and middle stages, and still managed to finish 3rd. You might now decide to check on the turn-and-finish photos to get the run into  even more perspective. These will tell you how far the horse was behind on the turn. This is important.

The horse may well have been 15 lengths, or maybe just two lengths. off the lead on the turn, even though in 10th position! Some fields are strung out, others pack up tightly when making the final bend. So the formline of '10th turn' can be misleading. You need to check a bit further to see the actual margin between the horse and the leader on the turn.

Only then can you accurately judge how well it finished. It could be that a horse was 10th on the turn, 2 lengths behind the leader, and although it ended up running 3rd it could have been beaten 3 lengths! It might have LOST GROUND in the run home.

On a more basic level, we can use these formlines to work out the 'best' horse in the race via prize-money earnings. All you do is divide a horse's earnings by the number of starts it has had, and you get what is called "average earnings" and these can often split the meek from the mighty. Sometimes, you can find a horse who is 'classes' above the opposition - not on recent form, perhaps, but on lifetime earnings and starts.

You can never under-value the importance of a horse's prize-money earnings. They are a barometer of its class, and they are one of the few ‘constants' in understanding what a horse's form is all about, and what it is actually worth.

A punter seeking, to "weigh up' form has to perform a delicate balancing act. He must pit each horse against another to see how each one measures up. His aid in this problem is the formlines. Most of all, Class' enable you to do the job as best and as safely as you can.

You can tell 'Class' by the actual classification of a race (Class 1, 2, 3 etc, Welter, Open etc.) and you can bolster this by looking at "average earnings'. A Class 1 horse, say, racing in Class 5 should, on the surface of things, be outclassed. In contrast, a horse which has won a race in Class 5 can be switched back to a Class 1 (providing, of course, it has won only the one race), and it would, on the surface of things, be easily able to win that Class 1.

Finally, self-confidence is required when assessing form. Without this self-confidence and ability to rely on your own judgement profitable results will be difficult to achieve. You have to devote as much care and judgement when making your selections as you would in any outside line of speculation.

While saying this, I have to stress that a punter should never try to be over-cautious. I know this streak of conservatism brings many punters unstuck. They become so cautious they are more or less afraid to back or select any horse! In the end, they find themselves losing in the long-term by backing horses which are odds-on in the betting.

The ‘meaning of form' is there for you to find. You have to study it carefully. Find out which details are the most pertinent. Find out which are the BEST horses in the race. Utilise all segments of the form which is available to you. Assess each horse carefully and with respect.

Often the most rough-looking chance can hold, somewhere in its form, the seeds of a win! This is where the bolters come in! The longshots we all dream about.


Click here to read Part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.

By Alan Jacobs