Queensland-based George Tafe is one of Australia's top ratings men. This is the first article in a 2-part series he has prepared for P.P.M. He discusses the various aspects of his approach to rating horses.

To win at the races, you must be prepared to do at least some work. There is no royal road to profits in the sport of kings. You must acquire at least some knowledge of the sport, because in this game knowledge is power.

AXIOM 1: Ratings. You must have a method of comparing the innate ability of a racehorse when it is (a) fit enough to win; and (b) racing over a suitable distance. This is what ratings are all about. The horse's current ability and fitness are measured and the results are quantified as a numerical rating. These ratings must be filed away in some form that allows easy retrieval.

AXIOM 2: Time and Distance. These are, in my opinion, the only absolutes in racing. Raw speed is distance divided by time. Doing this enables us to measure the 'raw speed' that a horse attained when racing over a certain distance under some defined set of rules. Obviously, this figure of distance/time is not the be-all and end-all of rating a horse, but it can be a very good starting point from which to gain a first approximation of the horse's ability.

AXIOM 3: Track Variant. For time and distance to be of any practical use, one must devise a method of allowing for the daily track variant.

AXIOM 4: Class. A horse is born with an innate ability to run out a given distance in a given time. On a racetrack, this ability will be affected by age, fitness, distance, track conditions, health, training methods and weight. It will also be affected by the number of other competitors in a race, the luck of the barrier draw and luck in running. A skilful jockey can help the horse in overcoming bad draws.

AXIOM 5: Track Bias. On any given day, there will be a track bias in operation. This will be determined by the state of the track, weather, wind direction and the distance separating the starting point of a race from the first turn. jockeys are aware of this track bias. You will often see them riding very wide when the track is slow, searching for good going.

I always prefer to bet on race meetings at which the track is fast to dead.

AXIOM 6: Fast Racehorses. On good tracks, fast horses win more races than slow horses. The fast horse, or speed horse, needs a good track to show its best. Plodding types can win races on poor racing surfaces and are difficult to rate because they are usually inconsistent.

AXIOM 7: Weight. Enough weight will stop a train. Racehorses are not trains but animal athletes and on good tracks I believe the effect of weight has been over-rated. Modern rules of racing, at least in Australia, seldom allow sufficient weight differences to exist between the top and bottom weights in a race for 'weight' to be the primary deciding factor in predetermining the winner. On rain-affected tracks-slow to heavy-it's a different matter.

I never frame value markets for slow to heavy tracks. I have heard of punters who claim to make profits in the rain and mud, just as I have heard stories about fairies at the bottom of the garden. I have never personally met a punter who consistently makes a profit betting on wet tracks.

Consistency in racing requires consistently even racing surfaces. I would much rather save every bet that I do not place on wet tracks and put it in a special bank in anticipation of a quick return to good and fast conditions and predictable racing.

To me, the greatest challenge in racing is the intellectual thrill of assessing the probabilities, lining up form, condition and current ability over a distance, comparing one horse with another and then putting it all together to pull out the most likely winner in a few rigidly selected races.

Recently, I assessed a certain horse as having a 42 per cent winning chance in a major Queensland race-providing the jockey and trainer read the way the race would be likely to be run. The horse had a wide barrier and I didn't think that it had enough early speed to get across and take up a position. On past form, though, he had an awful lot on the field plus an ability to win over the distance. This was proven by his good run previously in a race too short for him.

I reasoned that if the horse was allowed to drop out and trail the field until after turning into the home straight, there was nothing in the field with the ability to beat him over the 2100m to 2300m distance range. This particular horse won at good odds.

Top bookmakers are highly intelligent men who work very long hours at their chosen profession. The poor bookmaker and the less-dedicated bookmaker is not likely to succeed for very long. Every bookie I've ever met has been a workaholic. In short, the successful racing man-be he a punter, bookie, trainer or jockey-is a quick-thinking person, able to change as conditions change, a man who enjoys a challenge but does not accept one that he has no chance of winning.

Racing men are gamblers all, who usually come from a long line of successful gamblers, and they all have worked out that to win you need an edge over the competition. What is an edge? In my book, it's the art of judging when you have an advantage. The average punter, unfortunately, does not have an edge; he would bet on a phantom meeting with a caller yelling out the names of nonexistent horses. There are punters who will go to casinos and bet on computerised horse races on video machines, races which have no basis in reality and exist only in the randomising computer chip.

An 'edge' is when you use your knowledge, whether the knowledge is about a horse's form, a trainer's form or from a data base of information. The important thing is to be able to predict the result of a particular contest more often than the random process the pure gamble allows. This is what the bookie does when he studies form and sets his prices. This is what the professional punter does when he studies form and decides to punt on one race and not another. It's what the professional poker player does when he assesses chances and percentages in a game.

It is not what the average mug punter does when he bets every race, or when he bets blindly on someone else's opinion. The average mug punter does not have an edge. He does not think on his feet. He believes in Lady Luck.

But Lady Luck does not exist, except in the agile minds of successful gamblers who put everything together and arrive at logical conclusions. Lady Luck is just another word for 'edge'. And 'edge' is just another word for intelligent assessment of facts and hard work.

If we were to seriously compare weight carried from one race to another, and from one field of differing ability and distance to another, and then expect to be able to predict the result by adding, a couple of kilos here and there, then logically we would have to weigh the horse and rider combination instead of just the jockey.

Some figures I have from the computer tend to suggest that it could take as much as 10 kgs-or 21 Ibs-to change a result, all things being equal. And that's the rub. All things are not equal and from race to race they tend to become less and less equal. The fitness of horses changes as they go from one race field to another. Their ability changes as they compete in races of varying distance and many trainers do their best to hide improvement in a horse's form from one day to the next, in order to get better prices at the horse's next start.

In Victoria, the individual tracks are unique when compared with each other. I believe you need a much more intimate knowledge of Victorian tracks than in other States. It definitely is more difficult to transfer form from one Victorian track to another. You need to be aware of the quirks of tracks such as Sandown, where the 1000m distance appears to be a downhill run which means it is usually run at a faster pace than at other tracks.

Then we have the famous 'straight six' at Flemington. No bends, no curves, just go to whoa and not much room for finesse by a jockey. On this track and over this distance (1200m) a horse needs speed and stamina. The horse that has speed and the ability to just scramble home over 1200m at other tracks will find it much more difficult at Flemington down the straight.

When trying to measure the ability of a racehorse, you must also at some point consider the ability of the jockeys who ride it. I don't believe that you should ever give any credit for an apprentice's allowance, with the exception of a very, very few really outstanding talents. I doubt there is an apprentice anywhere as good as an experienced senior rider.

Statistically speaking, it is almost impossible to measure the difference in ability of one jockey against another. But there are some jockeys I wouldn't bet on even if they were riding Phar Lap. Some riders are outstanding-Dittman, Mal Johnston, Cassidy, Quinton, Peter Cook, Duffy, Cauci, Willetts, Hall and Michael Clarke.

If you are betting on a high probability horse in a high probability race, it is a most definite advantage to have your horse ridden by one of the above jockeys rather than by an apprentice or a jockey of moderate ability.

Barrier positions at some starting positions at some tracks are vitally important. The 1800m start at Eagle Farm is an example. The start from this distance is on a curving section of the track and horses caught wide early will have to travel further than horses with inside draws.

Next Issue: George Tafe concludes this series with more pertinent comments on betting and form assessment.

Click here to read Part 2.

By George Tafe