Well, you really have to ask yourself where it's all heading. What we have now with TAB Ltd has to be one of the most amazingly misguided new gimmicks that I have come across in all my years of racing.

 It is called spinner, and it is simply betting on odds and evens. There is a little bit of roulette associated with it, so long as you stress the words "little bit". Perhaps "boring bit" would be a better description.

Spinner pays on either a mixture or on all three of the placegetters being either odds or evens (i.e. the same). And, of course, absolutely predictably, it pays small. I have no idea why any ordinary punter would want any part of this bet, and I predict a very short shelf life for what will become seen as the worst decision of the year (and the year is only one-third over).

Let's face it, if you're going to have an exotic bet, then, at least so far as I'm concerned, you have that bet in the expectation that you can land something decent as a return. It is fair enough to say that you cannot calculate the size of your return.

If you want any evidence of that, all you have to do is to compare the trifecta dividends paid by the three companies. You can see them after every race, courtesy of Sky Racing on pay TV. Sometimes there are the most fearful discrepancies in one State or another. I have seen trifectas pay $9000 in NSW, $20,000 in Victoria, and $40,000~plus in Queensland/ South Australia.

I don't know the statistics but I have the feeling that NSW rarely comes out with a figure as grossly out of line and in favour of its patrons. What I mean by this is that I cannot remember an occasion when I saw those above figures reversed. Doubtless TAB Ltd can supply me with the one that proves the exception but, long-term, I do not feel that NSW has these kinds of regular and profitable anomalies. As always, I invite replies.

The reason for NSW coming in a bit light on exotic dividends (when they are of the huge variety) seems to me to be very evident: the culprit is the flexi bet. I'm not saying that it is a bad thing, as it offers the smallbet punter a slice of the action. But unfortunately it also takes a major slice out of the bigger and less likely dividends. This seems to me to be as obvious as anything in betting can be.

Let's use the dollar as the basic stake for the following example. If it costs an average punter $24 to take a box trifecta for a dollar, covering four horses, and it will cost him another $36 to take a fifth horse in the box, he will balk at the prospect.

The fact is that this least fancied horse is costing another 150 per cent to include in the box. So the four that he fancies most cost 40 per cent of his outlay and the one he fancies leastcosts him 60 per cent of his outlay.

Just to go from three horses to four horses in a box trifecta increases the outlay by another 300 per cent. In other words, the three you like most cost 25 per cent of the $24 outlay, and the one you like fourth best costs 75 per cent of the outlay.

To put this another way, to go from a three-horse box to a fivehorse box, adding fourth and fifth choices, increases the outlay from $6 to $60 or, to put it crudely, by 900 per cent. I doubt anybody thinks about this when they box horses in trifectas, but the mathematics of all this are spectacularly insane.

Just to rub some more salt into the wound, if you want to add a sixth horse, you would have to add another 100 per cent to the stake, taking it up to $120. And another horse, the seventh fancy, would set you back a cool $210, another 75 per cent.

To box the field in a greyhound race would require $336. In other words, the dog you like least of all, the one you think will finish eighth in a field of eight, will cost another 60 per cent to add to the other seven. That way lies madness.

Now, think back to that comment I made about flexi betting. You could take an eight-horse box trifecta for the cost of a four-horse box, so long as you were prepared to accept a much smaller proportion of the dividend, in this case, instead of a dollar on the four-horse box, costing $24, you invest $24 on the flexi box of eight runners.

Since the cost should be $336, you are now staked for 7 per cent of the dividend - $24 represents 7 per cent of $336.

I chose an extreme example, but reliable information provided for me by regular TAB trippers suggests that a staggering number of punters have these remarkable bets. So if the above trifecta won, and paid really well, say $9000, the dividend would be $630.

Let's look at this again. The trifecta paid 8999/1. But the dividend received was $630 for $24, or 25/1.

You might argue that to get this kind of cover, with its fantastic insurance, was worth the effort, and maybe it was for the $9000 return. But my objective here was to show you why I think the NSW dividends can sometimes look a little bit low.

The flexi bet offers the average punter the chance outlined above, but it also takes away from the punter who carefully plans his betting. He is going to be constantly harassed by the flexi bet punter who will include horses in combinations, when in the past this would simply not have been possible. I am not saying that this is a bad thing; I am not saying that flexi bet punting should be in anyway restricted, but I am suggesting it as a reason for possible downturns in large dividends.

It would also appear (and maybe this is the converse) that the superfecta in NSW is either doomed or will be radically cut back. On Golden Slipper day the Slipper itself was the only race to carry a superfecta, and it was not won.

Maybe the flexi bet should be operating on the superfecta and leaving the trifecta and the first four to get on with their lives. Maybe thiswould be the saving of the superfecta and perhaps it could be tried after it becomes obvious even to Blind Freddie that the spinner is a dud.

I do not know the figures for the quadrella, but SuperTAB seems to be sustaining it. I know that there was talk of putting it aside, but it pays fantastic dividends on occasions. Something else about the quadrella I have always liked is that you know at each stage with some reliability how you are going. Of course, you know if you have backed losers, and you are out of the running. But if you have backed winners you have a pretty fair idea when you are in
for a good collect.

Come the final leg, you are told upfront what your likely return will be on each horse. If you have two or three of them running, you have all sorts of chances of making a real killing through a dutch book, or possibly by taking various exotics.

For example, if you had three horses running in the final leg and you felt relatively confident, and the dividends were all going to be quite good, you could take a series of quinellas and trifectas which included other horses along with your own. You might, for example, using a trifecta, stand out three horses that were not amongst your quadrella's live selections, and place your three in with those three, for the places. So you would have ABC/ABCDEF/ABCDEF.

This would cost $60 for a dollar investment. It would mean, though, that if any of your next three fancies wins the race and any of your six top horses fill the placings, you get a consolation trifecta (but you do not get your quadrella).

It is rather like an insurance bet that you can take because you know what your quaddies are going to pay, and you are sitting on a very nice collect. So far as the quinella is concerned, or better still the exacta, you only include one of your live candidates in each combination. This breaks back your cost and might, in the case of a quinella, still produce a profit there (along with your quadrella win).

So, what does exotic betting mean in 2003? Depending on where you live and how you bet, it firstly means doubles and trebles. They can be race to race, or they can be "daily" and "extra" doubles. They can be trebles (three winners in predesignated races) and they can be quadrellas (four winners, usually in consecutive races). You can also, in some TABS, makeyour own doubles, trebles and accumulating bets (for example the parlay with TAB Ltd).

Then there are combinations of two or more horses in the one race, with the quinella, the exacta, the trifecta, the first four, the superfecta, and any other combinations that I have forgotten. I am not going to waste any more space on the spinner, except to invite anybody who would like to take part in my own private betting exchange to bet me even-money that the spinner dies a ghastly death before the end of 2004.

I have occasionally mentioned an observation made by the top British professional Alan Potts with regard to exotic betting.

Alan says in one of his books that the only tickets which are not highly coloured and do not feature all sorts of promises in British betting shops, are the simple win tickets. Every other ticket features a combination of horses and every other ticket is virtually done in neon lights, something like you might imagine a St Andrews spider would design for his prey.

It just came to me when I was preparing this article that the spider and fly concept is exactly what exotic betting is all about. If you look at the very best systems ever produced - and I think it is fair enough to look at the Dark Horse and Blockbuster as examples of these systems - they operate on single selections.

This is not to suggest that you cannot have some splendid methods of approaching exotic betting but, in line with Alan Potts, I have to say that the vast majority of your money must be directed towards single selections.

The most successful investors I have ever met do incorporate exotic betting into their portfolios. Of course they do! Exotic betting, which is more accurately called (in their case) investment, offers a longterm opportunity to make a lot of money and possibly, if occasionally, to achieve the kind of return that simply is not possible in any other walk of life.

Oh well, yes, there is Lotto - but I was being realistic. You may have read some of my work on probability theory so would know how I feel about Lotto. It is, in the words of our greatest wordsmith, such stuff as dreams are made on.

If you really want to get serious, if you really have long-term ambitions of making a go of racing, then you need a couple of damn good systems, a lot of patience, the willingness to do your homework, a decent betting bank, and, finally, a little bit of flair.

That flair can be channelled into your exotic betting. It must remain a small percentage of your overall outlay and, like the successful investors I referred to above, you must restrict your investment to times and places where you genuinely believe you have a strong chance of making money. Let me illustrate.

If you believe that there are no races this Saturday where you can isolate the chances and limit them to three or four, then probability says you should not bet that day. The exception to this assertion comes in the shape of your regular system investments.

Had you applied such a rigorous restriction to some of the selections made by the two systems I mentioned above, then you would have missed some great winners. And missing, say, Grand City at 20/1 is not something you would have enjoyed. But that is what a system is all about and that is why you can still have an enjoyable weekend following a system or two, whilst having no other bets.

I will tell you what else this does. It frees up your bank, so that when a race comes around where you reckon you really can sort out the genuine chances, you have not sprinkled your bank all around the countryside on races which were too difficult. If, for example, you just had to have $60 on a flexi trifecta in a minor race, covering six horses, a race in which there were seven or eight chances, did you win? And did you win much? And if not, did you ever expect to win much?

My experience with horseplayers is probably not that dissimilar from the experiences of our resident doctor, Clive Allcock, in this regard. Some punters simply cannot help themselves. If I have come too near the bone, then what are you going to do about it? What does it take to spell out that it is very, very difficult to beat the machine at any time, and it is infinitely more difficult if you play around with races that are not clearly defined, so far as their chances are concerned?

Before you challenge me about "clearly defined chances", let me get in first. The term means different things to different people, and for exotic betting you can anticipate situations where your opinion, based on hard experience and horse sense, will lead you to very good returns. If you don't have that gut feeling that this is your race, have the strength to stay out of the race.

And if the horses you were considering do fill the placings, again you must have the strength to shrug your shoulders and trust in your own judgement, knowing your turn will come and that it will be bigger than today's unfortunate experience. Nobody is saying that this is enjoyable. We all know that it is miserable.

But those of us who have got past this stage remember it with fear - it is like the reformed smoker, or the alcoholic who has been on the wagon for a long time, but knows that the temptation is always there.

I deal with the temptation myself by having a decent lash at the Melbourne Cup every year. I get it out of my system, I go after a huge collect because I know that the pools will be astronomical. It can be a goldmine. Occasionally I have done very well.

You must have an outlet. But for the rest of the year, exotic betting must be handled with the most delicate touch. You and I can never forget that everything offered to us is being offered by public companies that want to make money out of us. It is as true of a TAB machine as it is of a poker machine. That is all the game is about.

By The Optimist