I attended a private form forum the other week. The attendees were all punters who have made a living from the game for some years now.

It’s not the first time we have all got together. Such gatherings happen every couple of months. The idea is that we swap ideas and stories that may help us to improve what we do, which is to gamble on the outcome of horse races.

I must confess that I’m something of a newcomer to the group of six or sometimes seven. That’s because I only returned to full time betting a little over 12 months ago after going through a “break” from the racing game (which some of you may have suspected, given that I have written little for PPM in recent times).

I had felt I needed to go away and forget racing for a while. I had become too “close” to it and felt I was losing my instinctive process. The form, too, was becoming a blur to me. Studying it day after day, year after year, keeping up my ratings’ files, all took a toll.

In the end, I said enough was enough, packed my bags and headed for the Philippines where I bunkered down in Baguio City, up in the mountains, and rented a small cottage. There’s no horse racing in Baguio and I kept away from the Internet.

After six months I was refreshed and ready to return, though I first took a side trip to Hong Kong where I shortened a planned three months’ stay because of the hideous air pollution and instead went to Malaysia and stayed with an old pal from Sydney. He’s a punter and we had many a chat about what to do to win.

His main view was that a punter needs to specialise. Pick out an area of the game that you can understand and then become its master. He’s right, of course, and his thinking triggered in me a fierce desire to operate along those lines by the time I got back to Australia.

Around this time I also read an article by Simon Nott at Totalgambler.com, which said as follows:

‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ has never been a phrase to compliment anyone, no matter what their profession. If ever there was a saying to sum up the remote long-term chances of making a profit, let alone a living, gambling on horses, the ‘Jack of all trades . ’ is definately it.

With more and more racing these days, keeping up to date with all the form and information available is almost a physical impossibility. Being a successful gambler or, preferably, taking the gambling out of betting, has always been about superior knowledge. Assuming most of us don’t have the ear of a trainer or jockey, we’re responsible for gaining that edge. Given the information overload we face these days, the answer is to specialise.

At least from the on-course perspective, most successful punters concentrate on just one code of racing, although there are one or two notable exceptions.

While the vast amount of racing data to analyse is daunting, it’s also a help to those who wish to become an expert in a small area and still have regular betting opportunities. Rather than just concentrate on jumps or flat, you can add all-weather racing as a separate code now because concentrating on a specific area in this field could also prove very rewarding to anyone willing to put in the time.

While the bookmakers employ “experts” to price up races, increasingly often they allow the tail to wag the dog and take into account the prices on the exchanges before sticking their necks out.

Those faceless people in Internet land may well be people with inside info on certain horses, but they’re more likely to be out-and-out gamblers who price up every race with little more to go on than the probable starting prices given in the Racing Post, which are in turn priced up by a handful of people with a lot of work and little time.

This is the daily situation a specialist can utilise to great effect. Whatever your interest, you could soon become an authority in a specialist sphere and make yourself some cash.

So where should you concentrate? One idea for the patient and long-term form student would be to follow a generation of flat horses, keeping tabs on, say, all two-year-olds through the first season, spotting potential and patterns. For example, concentrating on just two-year-olds that run at Grade 1 tracks would keep down the workload. The following year, as three-year-olds, the horses you study could be whittled down further, with an in-depth knowledge of a smaller group of horses emerging.

For many, the drawback to this idea would be that backing two-year-olds is a risky business, especially with unknown quantities such as unraced newcomers and horses who have come on dramatically for their first runs. However, if you’re happy to study and not bet, the knowledge gained would prove a formidable foundation for serious punting action on these horses in the next season.

Keeping with the flat, why not limit your study to horses just running over five furlongs (1000m) instead of concentrating on all sprinters? The minimum rip takes out the guesswork, whereas horses may be stepping up in trip in six- and seven-furlong (1200-1400m) races.

So that’s one man’s view and a most considered and relevant one, too. Which brings me back to the private form forum I attended and the men who were there and what they had to say.

There were six of us. Charlie (as I shall call him) is a six-something punter who’s been making a good living via plunges for many years, and that, in a word, is his specialisation:

Charlie may have only a dozen bets a year. They will be big ones. I’m talking of bets from a few thousand dollars through to probably $10,000. He can make a year’s wages in one bet.

Charlie says there is no great scientific approach involved in selecting his bets. He follows a few top stables, mainly in Melbourne, and he doesn’t mind accepting a short price if he’s convinced the horse can win.

“The secret is in the betting,” he told us as we sipped coffee in his home at Brighton in Melbourne. “Knowing when to go in heavy is what it’s all about. That’s what I’ve learned to do well over the years because I can smell out a good bet. Call it instinct or whatever, but I know I’ve got it, and I placed great faith in my own judgement.”
I asked Charlie what his two most recent bets had been. He was open in saying he’d back a winner and a 2nd, and they were the same horse, Miss Finland.

“I had $5,000 on her when she won at 7/2 at Caulfield on September 1, and I lost the same amount on her when she ran 2nd on September 22,” he told me. “And she should have won the second time; I thought it was an ordinary ride, parked out wide and doping nothing about it.”

Two bets, then, for an outlay of $10,000 and a return of $22,500, a profit of $12,500 on two bets. That’s the way Charlie operates. He’s pretty much a fearless bettor, he knows his bets’ range and he knows the sorts of horses he wants to back. Usually they will be Group class horses in the hands of top trainers and invariably ridden by the best jockeys.

I guess the thing that Charlie possesses, which eludes most punters, is patience. He’s prepared to wait weeks and weeks for a good bet. The lack of action doesn’t bother him at all. But how many of us can say we’d do the same? Too often, the hunger for action does us in.

Then there’s Bob, who used to own a car rental business in Asia and sold it for a fortune and came home to Australia some five years ago to indulge himself in a life of betting on horse racing.

Bob decided he’d specialise in “stables” and it’s proven a real winner for him. He says he has only two or three stables at any one time. He cherry picks which of their runners he will back and he says it’s not a difficult task.

“I guess a lot of people might feel a bit nervous at having to sort through potential bets from the same stable,” he said. “But it’s not so hard. I go through the form very thoroughly and it’s only in the smallest number of instances that I can’t isolate the stable’s best chances on the day. And splitting two or more horses in the same race is also not a hard task, and if it does seem too hard I’ll just avoid the race. If I miss a winner, so be it.”

How many bets does Bob have every week? He says it averages out to four or five at the most, usually on Saturdays. He bets according to a “gut feeling” about a horse’s prospects and also its price. The better the price the more he puts on. His range is anything from $500 to $2,000.

“I try to win two or three thousand a week over the course of a year,” he says. “That’s not a difficult figure. I mean, imagine you’re a $5 bettor. You’d bet between $5 and $20 and you’d be looking at winning $20 or $25 a week. Most punters would feel that’s an attainable goal. They might raise their eyebrows when you talk in thousands of dollars but the principle’s the same.”

Bob was a little coy when I asked if I could name the stables he follows. He declined to name them all but did say that Mick Price was one of the trainers and certainly the one who had given him his biggest returns in the last two years. Had Pompeii Ruler won the Cox Plate the returns would have been much greater; Bob had $2,000 on the horse at 16/1!

Now we come to Barry. He’s not a full-time punter because he runs a couple of cafes in Melbourne, but he is a serious punter who bets much more than the average guy in the course of a year. Barry says that when he reaches 60 he’ll give up the cafes and unload himself into full-time betting.

His forte is betting favourites at country and provincial tracks. Now, I was a bit quizzical when Barry outlined his approach but he convinced me it was a viable way to make money on a regular basis. He operates only at meetings held on Tuesdays and Thursdays and will replace one of these days with a Wednesday meeting if a city meeting is not being held.

He attends the track. It’s essential, he says, that he backs the right horse. It must be a clearcut favourite and it must have a number of sound factors in its favour . . . good draw, ability at the distance, maybe winning form at the track, a decent trainer and jockey, and it must have strong form.

“Usually I can have a fair idea of which horses I’ll be looking at,” he says. “They are signposted in the morning papers and most times they are not displaced as favourites by race time. If I go through the form and find that there’s nothing that fits the bill where all the required factors are concerned, I just give the meeting a miss. I know there’s no hurry.

”I’ve thought about changing my routine many times; it can get a bit one-paced, but I know the profit figures are attainable and I say to myself, don’t jump off the winning tactic, just stick with it. The thing works! If it ain’t broke, don’t mend it, and so on. The hardest thing for me is travelling to and from the meetings. They are all over the place in Victoria and it entails a lof of driving. Luckily, I have a few mates who are able to accompany me and they help with putting the money on as well.”

Another chap at this forum was Wally, a retired electrician. When I say “retired” it might indicate he’s an old bloke but in fact he’s only in his early 40s, but he made the decision some five years ago to get out of the workaday world and go betting.

His speciality is 2yo racing. He is fanatical in his determination to know everything there is about each wave of youngsters. Few blokes can match his ability to pick out a handful of youngsters and back them through the season for massive returns.

He’s a bloke who doesn’t mind a big bet. When Meurice won the Champagne Stakes, Wally was “on” with a $3,000 bet at 11/2. What’s the secret to finding the youngsters who will be worth following? Wally says: “Good trainers, good breeding, good early form in good races. Simple as that. You soon get to know which ones are going to make it long-term. The form usually stands up well.”

More on how to specialise in your betting.
We bring you 10 approaches that will guide you to the profit list.

By Richard Hartley Jnr