The one thing I dislike about systems is that they have rules that are seemingly inflexible.

They worry me. When I look at system rules I often cannot accept the rigid formulas by which they operate.

For instance, let's say the rules say that you mustn't back a horse unless it has had its last race within the past seven days. Now I say this - what about if it had its last race, and a good one, eight days ago? Can't that be taken into account? Surely, 24 hours is not going to make a difference?

But, no, the system rules are clearly stated and if I was to follow it blindly, I would not back the horse. I might, or might not, miss out on a winner. I might avoid backing a loser. Who knows? My point is that when you are punting you need to have flexibility. Room to change things to satisfy the demands of your own good sense.

Let me give another example: A horse has a win record of 25 per cent from, say, 40 starts. That sounds pretty good to me - and yet if we look further into his form we find that in another 10 races he has run 2nd, beaten less than a length in each. He has, then, been very close to having a 50 per cent win record.

This is something I always take into account when assessing a horse for consistency -you cannot always take its win record at face value, as it may have shown tremendous near-winning form in a host of other races.

Often, the total number of starts a horse has had makes his win percentage look bad. When you probe further, you find that many of those efforts were conditioning runs, or outings in higher class.

You get a distorted picture of a horse's ability. If we assume that for Horse A he had 25 per cent of his total runs as 'conditioners' we can take them away from his overall percentage record. Let's say he had 20 starts in all. He won five of them for a 25 per cent win percentage, but of those 20 outings only 15 were true races, the other five being conditioners. We then see that his true win percentage is five wins from 15 starts, a 33 per cent win average.

Many horses have to be raced into condition. Few can attain immediate winning form. This is particularly true of stayers. They might need six or seven outings before showing their real ability.

I think it's advisable to deduct one third of the total number of starts when attempting to make use of a consistency record - but, that's not an inflexible rule!

You have to check out each horse to ascertain its racing history. You see, even when you deduct for conditioning runs you are not getting a true picture of the horse's current ability. There may be dramatic differences in a horse's form from one season to the next.

Here's an example:

StartsWins2nds3rdsUnplaced
198590117
1984218427

You can see from this set of figures that the horse in question was racing particularly well in 1984, and yet in the following year his form fell in a heap. Why?

He may have suffered an injury or an illness, he could have had a change of trainers, his runs in 1984 may have been on minor tracks against weak opposition, he could have found the rise to better class in 1985 too hard to handle.

So, his bad year's form affects his consistency record. And the good consistency record from 1984 might have led us into supporting the horse in 1985, much to our dismay.

Thus, I make the point again, that you have to exercise some caution with straight statistics. You need on many occasions to look beyond them. Then you will often discover a blinding 'truth' that will stop you from making a rash bet, or lead you to making a winning one.

I think the best way to determine a horse's current winning ability is its recent form. The Sportsman form guide provides the last seven starts of each horse and these are enough to tell you all you need to know.

You will be able to see if a horse missed winning by a matter of inches (beaten by a short half head, or a head, or a neck etc). I always think these beaten efforts'should be marked down as winning ones anyway.

My own philosophy is to carefully consider rating a horse as a winner if it was beaten less than a length. I'm not too rigid about it (I never am!) but I use it as a yardstick.

I told a friend recently that I only back horses if they are racing within 14 days of their last start. A week or so later he saw me back a horse that had started 15 days earlier. He claimed that he had caught me out breaking my rules - but I told him that I am not so foolish as to ignore a winner because of 24 hours! He thought I was going to be inflexible and he read me wrong.

I use the 14 day rule as the yardstick, but from there I can be subjective about what to do. My judgement is the final arbiter.

I don't want to be placed in mental handcuffs for the sake of a rule that should only be regarded as a measuring stick. I suggest that you, too, be wary of too many mental handcuffs when analysing a race.

You can try a simple test yourself for determining a horse's current racing condition. Count up all the races in a horse's latest form where it finished less than I length from the winner. Then consider backing the horse, or horses, with the most number of runs like that.

Here's an example from Randwick last October:

It is clear from these statistics that Orb, Mac's Treasure and My Politician were the three horses with the soundest recent efforts, particularly Orb, with five of its last seven starts being either wins or placings within a length of the winner.

You can consider not backing any horse that hasn't achieved a figure four in this test.

By Steve Parkins

PRACTICAL PUNTING - JUJNE 1986