The other day, I was among a group of punters at a TAB agency in Sydney. One of them told us how he fancied a certain horse, and was super confident it would win.

Then he added: "I don't know how much I should put on." And with that little admission, he revealed a problem that afflicts so many punters. How much do I bet?

There's no easy answer. How long is a piece of string, we may as well ask. So much depends on a variety of factors, complex and otherwise.

We could start with the personality of the player. In the case I have related, I know that the punter involved is a \$10-a-bet man, so if he put \$20 on his 'special' then he would be betting 100 per cent above his average, something that would worry him not a little.

What's your average bet, and how much would you go above it if you were confident you had a winner selected?

My guess is that few punters would want to move too far from their personal comfort zone. A doubling or tripling of an average bet would cause concern.

If a punter simply follows a levelstakes procedure, then he never has to worry about the value of his next bet because all bets remain the same. The only time he has to make a decision is when his profits reach a certain point and he wishes to increase the value of the levelstake bet.

A \$10 level-stakes bettor might find himself winning, say, \$200 on his original \$100 bank, giving him a total of \$300 in hand. He can pocket, say, \$100 of the profits, then add the other \$100 to the original bank, taking it to \$200, and increase his bets to, say, \$15 each rather than \$10.

A punter following a progression plan also will always know what his next bet is going to be, because each step in the progression is spelled out. Much the same applies to target betting fans. The rules of the game determine the size of each bet.

If you're a punter who 'shoots from the hip' (that is, you have no set amount to bet on any selection), then your ongoing problem will be putting too little on winners and too much on losers.

It's a cruel game, this racing, and refining your staking skills is as much a crucial element in longterm success as actually picking winners, though not enough punters will accept this premise.

I strongly recommend that any punter, big bettor or small, use some form of controlled staking. You should determine your approach by looking at your strike rate with winners, the prices you get, and by examining your own psychological preparedness for putting on larger stakes than normal.

You should never lose sight of the fact that the success of any betting method depends on four key factors:

1. The percentage of winners the punter is capable of attaining;
2. The prices of the winners;
3. Having sufficient capital to carry you through losing runs;
4. Having the nerve to stick to your plan through rough and smooth.

American expert Gary Richards has this to say (and I must point out that Richards was a firm advocate of betting to prices, percentage-wise): "The only betting method which offers the bettor any degree of real safety is one that progresses and regresses in accordance with the prevailing odds on each selection backed. Any method which eliminates or ignores this is not a sound one.

"Commonsense tells me that my prospective profit is always governed by the number of winners selected and the odds they pay off at. It's clear, then, that the amount of each wager should be governed by the amount lost previously and the odds of the next bet, plus the margin of profit you're seeking."

Here, Richards is advocating target betting in that he seeks to ,reclaim losses and gain a projected profit figure. Many pro punters around the world follow such an approach, even in the face of criticism that they are simply chasing losses.

Richards says: "No method will produce a profit until a winner is backed. I see nothing wrong in ledgering my losses in order to recoup them as soon as possible. What's wrong with that?"

The reality is, of course, that 99 per cent of punters are sloppy about managing their betting cash. Only a few will change bad betting habits. If you know you're not going to be one of the latter, then read no further!

If you seriously want to change, start thinking now about ways and means to give yourself a far better chance of coming out ahead. Why not try a very simple approach? I'm referring to a 'percentage of bank' approach.

The easiest thing is to say, my bank is X (let's assume \$200) and my bet is going to be 5 per cent of whatever the bank happens to be, up or down. There, in a nutshell, is a sensible form of betting. Nothing dramatic, nothing too conservative or plain boring.

When you win and your bank increases, so does your bet. If you're going bad, your bets are reduced. At any time, you can control any increase in bet size.

If we assume you've had a great run and your bank stands at \$500, your bet would be \$25. Maybe that makes you feel a tad uncomfortable. Okay, snip \$200 from the bank, pocket the cash, and work on a \$300 bank. Your 5 per cent bet is now \$15 and you feel comfortable again.

You might also work out a plan that involves taking into account a horse's price. What needs to be done is that you do your form, make your selection, and then try to price it. How much is it worth of your money?

You might decide that it's a \$10 selection, or you fancy it a bit more than that, say a \$15 selection. This is where subjective judgement comes in and where the trap lies in betting too much on losers or too little on winners.

There has to be, I suggest, a formula that takes away the guesswork. Using the 5 per cent idea you achieve the non-subjective staking. However, you can work within this 5 per cent with a grading of your bets; some worth 2 per cent, others 3 per cent, others 4 or 5 per cent.

This could be done by available prices. If a horse is strong in the market, 2/1 or under, then a 5 per cent bet is called for; if it's 9/4 to 4/1, then 4 per cent, and so on. If you are a risk-taker you might well decide to turn this formula on its head.

If the horse is 2/1 or under, bet 2 per cent; if it's 9/4 to 4/1, then bet, say, 3 per cent, if 9/2 to 6/1, bet 4 per cent and if it's 13/2 or longer, bet 5 per cent. This approach, with its inherent risks, will help you to cash in big on the longer-priced winners while holding the line on the shorties.

If anything at all emanates from your reading of this article, I hope at the very least it makes you start thinking more about the discipline of staking.

By Mark Merrick

PRACTICAL PUNTING - NOVEMBER 1998