Don't talk to me about place betting," a pal bemoaned recently. "Been there, done that. Burned!"

Yes, there are lots of punters who've had a real bash at the place side of things and never got anywhere. They blame everything but themselves. Yet I know a couple of chaps in Melbourne who swear by place betting, and maintain they can knock out steady profits.

They are much in the mould of the late, great Chicago O'Brien, the man who made that famous statement: PICK 'EM TO WIN, PLAY 'EM TO PLACE.

O'Brien was a keen student of racing. He made a deep study of form and he also had the contacts essential to anyone who wants to earn a living by betting, though it could be argued that "contacts" are not so necessary these days where the form of every horse is exposed under a glare of publicity.

O'Brien had the patience of a saint. It's said that he would allow race after race to go by without making a bet but when he struck a race in which he considered one of the runners to be a certainty he would bet big for the PLACE. He never worried about the win.

O'Brien explained: "In racing there is no such thing as a certainty. A horse can be tried as a good thing but happenings in a race can knock holes in pre-race theories. A bump, a check, a blocked gap or being forced wide on the turn can all mean the difference between victory and defeat.

"I have seen all those things happen to standout propositions which, as a result, have gone down by inches instead of winning by yards.

"In my early days I did what all punters should do ... I kept a turf library and I used it to compile record sheets. I started investigating the performances of horses which had been declared unbeatable. I discovered an amazing fact: My list showed over a period there were 127 such horses and of these 'certainties' a total of 52 wins, resulting in a loss at level stakes of 16 units.

"A total of 63 ran 2nd and I reckoned that at least 48 of them were UNLUCKY to lose. Now, a bettor backing each of those 127 horses straight on a flat stake ran up a loss but another player using a flat stake and backing the same horses for a place would have got a profit of more than 36 units.

(O'Brien is talking here about 1st/2nd place betting in America.)

"The discovery gave me something to think about. For years I had been putting my money on the nose and I could recall hundreds of races in which I won or lost in very tight finishes. It made me realise my blood pressure would have been much better had I simply bet for the place.

"So my advice is this: If you're in the betting business it's much better business to pick up small profits on gilt-edged securities than to gamble in the hope of a big return."

O'Brien said the moment he got onto this issue he quit betting, except for one or two bets, for almost a year. In that time he kept his form charts and continued to probe the place betting angle.

He made make-believe place wagers and when he looked at his credit column after six months he could hardly believe what he saw.

The profit was steady and kept rolling in.

He said: "I resolved then and there to never again bet for a win, even if it was a champion against a no-hoper at level weights!"

So, if we decide to follow the advice of Chicago O'Brien, how can we go about it?

Okay, the first step is that you decide to bet only on GOOD THINGS, where one runner seems to hold a mortgage on some part of the prizemoney. You use a simple staking system with the selections.

You decide on your unit of investment, and your first bet is double that unit and you remain on that investment until you back a placed horse. You then increase your next bet by your unit and you do this every time you strike a placegetter.

Let's look at an example:

Let's say you bet in $1 units. The six races on which you operate end up as follows: (A) Lost, (B) 3rd $1.60, (C) 2nd $1.80, (D) 3rd $2, (E) Lost, (F) 3rd $1.60.

The balance would look like this:

Total bet: $21
Total return: $24.60
Profit: $3.60
Percentage: +17.14 per cent

This looks small beer when you think in $1 bets and so on, but let's take it up a notch to $100 units! Now you'd be looking at a significant profit on your money.

Of course, it isn't as easy as this example shows. For a start, you might not be able to secure such prices on your placegetters. And you never know what a losing run might be, though I venture to suggest that if you are playing the game properly, with good sense, any losing run would be very small.

Whether you bet for pleasure or in the hope of making your racing hobby pay for itself, then this is a conservative plan which can win money for you and certainly never do you much harm, provided you follow the selection approach carefully. Start picking wild longshots and it could all go pear-shaped.

In Sydney, I have a friend who bets for the place. His method is to follow certain stables, and to back their representatives whenever he feels they offer standout place bet propositions. The stables he follows are those of Gai Waterhouse, John O'Shea, Guy Walter and Bede Murray.

He doesn't bet all their horses; that would be financial suicide. What he does is to tick them off each raceday, study the form and decide which ones are the gilt-edged place chances.

His recent bets have included Bedouin and Shot Of Thunder from O'Shea and Red Trinket for Gai Waterhouse. Plus many others.

He tells me: "I started this thing a year or so back, when I just got sick and tired of betting mainly for the win and seeing so many of the bets running a place and my ending up with nothing. I checked out some of the stables and
decided to concentrate on four of them.

"It's worked out very well. Gai's horses especially are wonderful. She gets so many placegetters and whenever I find one of hers that I feel is a sure thing, it rarely lets me down. And surprisingly some of the divvies are very good.

"It's the same with John O'Shea. He's still at the stage where punters are not prepared to overbet his horses, so there are some good divvies coming along whenever he scores."

Long term, the place bettor is going to have to secure fair odds about the horses he backs, otherwise he could end up behind the game.

If you're backing against the favourite, you should have a clear understanding of what minimum price you should obtain.

For example, if the favourite is, say, 6/4 and the second-favourite, which you intend backing, is at 4/1, you'll need to assume that a fair place price for this bet is 13/8 ON, which means a place divvie of $1.60 for a $1 bet.

If, say, the favourite is 6/4 and your second-favourite is 3/1, then a fair price for the place would be 5/2 ON, a divvie for $1 of $1.40.

You can get the full table for fair eachway prices against a shortpriced favourite in Roger Dedman's book Commonsense Punting.

Always think carefully, then, about the horse you are going to back, and look for some value. It can be hard to find. If your hotpot is 6/4 for the win, what can you hope for so far as the place component goes? Probably about $1.20 or $1.30.

But if you are 99 per cent certain that the horse you are backing is going to run 1st, 2nd or 3rd, then that $1.20 or $1.30 return will look pretty juicy.

My Sydney friend bets in $200 and $300 units and is happy to pick up a return that gives him a profit of 30 cents in the dollar for little risk.

Work out for yourself the likely dividends for the place as against the win price. Over a period of time you'll get a good idea of what to expect.

If I were betting for the place on a serious basis I would ensure I bet right up to the last possible moment, and, frankly, I'd want a minimum $1.20 return on the dollar, otherwise no bet.

By Martin Dowling