As I planned this three page article, the news began to break about the equine influenza scare. I am a great believer in something I once heard the comedian Woody Allen say: “90 per cent of the things I have worried about in my life didn’t happen.” Woody went on to explain that the fact that these things didn’t happen sent him into an even deeper depression.

However, I think the better philosophy for us, is to look at the next couple of months as though things will be okay. This may end up being a “head in the sand” situation, but you play the cards you are dealt. We’re going to take things as they normally come, accept other things being equal and if a situation needs to be modified, I have great faith in my readers being able to reassess things as they go along.

On that basis, let’s make the assumption that most of the spring is going to go ahead as planned. Now if that happens, I’d like to introduce new readers to a book which my regular readers have known about for some years. Graham Swift wrote his Booker Prize winner, Last Orders, about a decade ago now, and it has since been made into a fantastic movie. Bob Hoskins played the part of Ray, the professional punter who’d never held down what other people might refer to as a “job”. Ray had walked straight out the door of his school and in the door of his local turf accountant. Swift made an in-depth study of the racing scene in Britain.

Ray was an incredibly highly selective punter. He would go weeks on end without a bet, but when he did have one, it might be for a thousand pounds. Of course he was a fictional character, but my goodness you believed in him. My regulars know that one of my closest racing friends was the late Reg Maloney (a real gentleman). Reg had that kind of patience, and although, unlike Ray, he was not betting to survive, I used to marvel along with the third member of our close little trio about his ability to sit a whole program through without any suggestion bet. He’d not even visit the ring! Reg was quite capable of going weeks like that and then having a bet of perhaps $5,000 to $600, or maybe $3,000 to $580.

What you need to understand is that the first bet would be struck at odds of 8/1 ($9) and the second bet at odds of perhaps 5/1 ($6). Without an edge, it was very rare for him to bet. If he ever did. I saw Reg on several occasions over our close 30 year friendship simply walk away when, in his view, the value or the edge wasn’t there. As the other member of our close little group would tell you, the horse he had walked away from would, more often than not, still win the race. Reg would have watched it intensely on his very elderly 10x50 binoculars and made various notes in his racebook, but he was ever the philosopher.

The most you might see was a quick shrug of the shoulders and the most you would hear was something to the effect of “Well, fancy that!”

So Reg belonged to the first school. He could even watch the Melbourne Cup without putting his hand in his pocket. I have only met two racing people in my lifetime that could do this. The other one actually telephoned me “for a chat” four minutes before the race was due to start, in a year when I was watching from home. I still find that hard to believe, Dave, if you are reading this. Talk about wills of iron!

Does one swallow make a summer? Reg and Ray will not make a spring either for most punters. Elsewhere in the magazine, I’ve mentioned trying to get a little edge on the big race, courtesy of some extraordinary TAB odds. In my case, that will not necessarily be the only bet I have on the Melbourne Cup and it will certainly be only one of several that I have throughout the carnivals that are coming up.

I could never predict with perfect accuracy how many bets I might end up with on a specific weekend, but long term I can be pretty sure that my busiest time of the year is coming up. This is because, from where I sit, the greatest value can occur in the months of October and November. Sometimes this can start in mid September, but you have to be wary about weighing up the better class horses.

Best of all  may be the smaller weight for age fields. You can have exceptions and be rolled, as I was last year in the Cox Plate when I really thought I had it sewn up. But overall, sticking with the more favoured animals in the exceptional set weight events can prove particularly appetising.

Many punters who really know their stuff will advise you only to bet each way on fields of eight or nine or maybe ten at the maximum, in this kind of race. And the horse you actually support is not the $10 outsider, but the $3.50 or $4.00 second favourite. Needless to say, you need to be friends with a bookmaker if you are going to pursue this kind of betting. Rest assured, the TAB will not be offering $1.65 or $1.75 for the place. More like $1.40 to $1.50, which destroys your each way advantage.

If you are a small investor and by that I mean you outlay $5 or maybe $10 per race, you should not walk away from this kind of betting over the spring carnival. This is because there will be some very high quality horses competing every weekend and you can make mistakes. But betting each way (assuming you can do this with a bookmaker and seek top fluctuation), can keep you solvent for a lot longer.

At the end of the spring carnival last year, I’d had a losing run. This would have been sorted, had Pop Rock got up in the Melbourne Cup, because I had taken one of my few genuine successes, Tawqeet, into the Japanese horse and half a dozen others for some succulent returns.

The following weekend, I gave Magic Instinct a final chance and everybody on the course – including the caller – believed he’d won. He hadn’t. My good fortune was that I’d taken him each way at top fluctuation and while I was disappointed with the outcome (shocked, more like it), my pocket wasn’t empty. In fact, my pocket did quite well, but I’m sure you get the point.

Okay, we have two choices. The first is to be like Ray and to identify a very small, select number of runners, watch the trainer very carefully, get to know what he does with his horses, and know exactly what the horse itself can do. Then, you have to be prepared to maybe put all your plans on hold if everybody else comes up with the same answer.

This is why, if I can hark back, Delta Blues at $61 (see my Educating the Punter) really does represent a value bet, win lose or draw. In the same way, when I took $51 about Makybe Diva three months before the 2003 Melbourne Cup, I was speculating on what I had seen her do in the spring of 2002. The odds were enough to attract me, although she was certainly not anything like a maximum bet.

Ray, sitting in my shoes, may well have had his grand on each of those horses and then sat back, satisfied that he only had to pull a couple of those to keep the balance in the black. But most punters work on a week by week basis and while we always advise our clientele that long term results are the only results that really count, there can be just as much stress after a losing weekend as there is in placing one large bet.

I want you to imagine for a moment having $500 each way on a $5 chance in the Cox Plate and having the bet as soon as you know the final field. Just forget anything we’ve already been talking about above and imagine that. A grand. That’s a lot of money.

But, if you consider the $100 a week you’ll shell out in the racing game over the coming 10 weeks, there’s your grand. You would be having the whole grand on the “one swallow” that we’ve been talking about. And if it comes home, you’ve just won $2500; and if it runs second or third you get your entire grand back. So it isn’t an easy decision is it?

Some of my friends travel both ways on this kind of betting. One of their banks, for simplicity let’s say it’s 50 per cent, is for the kinds of bets that Ray favours, while the other 50 per cent will be distributed selectively over the carnival. I know one fellow, Gordon, who invariably ends up identifying one horse for each of what he regards as his special races during September and October.

These races are the Manikato Stakes, the Underwood, the George Main, the Turnbull, the Epsom, the Metropolitan, the Caulfield Guineas, the Toorak, the Geelong Cup, the Cox Plate, the Cathay Pacific (Moonee Valley) Cup, the Victoria Derby, the Wakeful, the Salinger, the Mackinnon, the SAAB Quality, the Melbourne Cup, the VRC Oaks, the Queen Elizabeth, the Sandown Classic and the Eclipse Stakes.

He has identified 21 races but ideally he intends to make his profit by Derby Day, probably the best day on the Australian calendar. The 21st bet, the Eclipse Stakes, will this year be run on the last Saturday in November (again other things being equal!) and he regards it as his “get out” race.

He has always maintained, as long as I’ve known him, that you have to give yourself a chance of breaking even if you’ve had a losing carnival. His philosophy is that identifying your own race and knowing all of its little foibles well in advance of time is the way to travel. He says this is very different from any silly “try to get out on the last” bet.

With 20 races and a get-out, he has a bank of (take a deep breath) $50,000. Of course this is a massive bank but he has built up over the years by this simple philosophy: only the spring carnival, only 20 races (which he substitutes now and then as conditions may be changed for entry).

His own method of calculating his chances of success is based on his professional approach over the past 30 years. It’s an unusual approach which I’m sure all readers would be interested in thinking about.  Since it has nothing to do with any private system, I am not betraying any confidences by explaining exactly how he does it.

He cannot determine the final odds which will be on offer about the horses he selects. In a very unusual move, he allocates $21000 to initial bets. He calculates base investment per horse as $1000. As you can see, there goes a potential $21,000 accounted for at the beginning. Oh, by the way, that is distributed amongst his three bookmakers at top fluctuation. While it may seem so to you and me, he is not massively big-time and his bookmakers are perfectly happy to accommodate him: they all need to be able to boast of some winning punters!

After the betting has actually opened, he reviews the situation. He is prepared to have anything up to another $1,500 (which covers the other $30,000 in the bank) on his selection if he believes it is value. There’s that word again. Remember that “value” makes no difference to his own opinion about the horse’s chances of winning and of course it makes no difference to the horse ultimately winning or losing. I mean, exactly what was going to happen will still happen and his opinion won’t make a jot of difference. However, if it is going to happen at an offering of $8 rather than $5, you can bet your sweet life he will be looking very hard at having another go at the horse.

On the other hand, and this is a very interesting bit which new readers must focus very strongly on, if he expected the horse to be around $8 and it is $5, he could feel buoyed by this confidence. He may well believe in his own mind that the horse is a true $4 chance, and sometimes, under these conditions, he will still add to his original wager. Value, you see. Still there.

So he is very much an independent thinker on this issue. What he will not do is add any support to the horse if it is equal to what he thinks is its correct price, or, worse still, below his anticipated odds. Remember that he generally has the best part of 40 minutes to make these assessments and that he is very rarely looking at more than two races on any afternoon.

During that half hour or so, he will be analysing the various TAB prices (together with the amount of money invested in the pool, which gives an indication of how easily the odds might be shifted – in the case of a million-dollar pool, he can be pretty sure with a few minutes to go that any anomaly is likely to remain in his favour).

You’ve probably latched on to his other modus operandi. It seems to be the way the world is going. He bets on his computer from his home office. He has immediate access to accurate fluctuations (there are at least four bookmakers that provide this service now) and he has, courtesy of those same bookmakers, tote comparisons at his fingertips. He uses one main computer, two backups, with fast satellite broadband.

So does one swallow make a summer? It has to depend on you. Are you a Gordon? Are you a Ray? Can you live with either or any of those approaches? One big hit or several smaller ones? As always, the final call is yours.

By The Optimist