Of all the racetrack factors none is as important as the fitness of the racehorse you have under scrutiny for a possible wager.

The mighty horses of the past have all been beaten by horses several lengths inferior in ability, simply because the inferior horses were fitter. So, how does the punter determine the level of fitness in their choices assuming they cannot be at the racetrack and do not have the chance to view their selections in the parade ring?

Punters really only have current form and the spell dates of each runner to peruse, which are freely available in the daily newspapers and any trackwork or barrier trial information as published in certain specialist form newspapers such as The Sportsman.

In writing this article I am going to concentrate on the tools the average punter has available as per the daily newspaper they would normally buy for the news of the day and I will assume the punter will keep the form guides for future reference.

There are six areas relevant to “spell dates”; that is, the days since they last raced, which I believe can help the punter glean enough information to make a relatively informed decision whether to back a selection or to determine that alarm bells are ringing to suggest caution might be the better option than betting.

The areas are:
a)    seven days or less
b)    8-14 days
c)    15-20 days
d)    21 days exactly
e)    22 - 28 days
f)    29 days and longer

Firstly, it must be remembered that for a trainer to accept with a horse after a break of only seven days or less, it should be considered as a deliberate action because there are tight deadlines the trainer has to meet between the acceptance stage. He must also determine if the horse has recovered from its last race.

This tight deadline is particularly evident if the horse is backing up after five days or less. It is one thing for the trainer to seemingly signal he thinks the horse is fit and ready to front up again but two factors have to be considered before we madly rush in and start betting.

Some trainers are extremely proficient at the short back up methodology while others just send them around without really considering the second part of the equation, which is the horse.

Quite simply, some horses have an ability to front up seemingly week after week (Adavale Hornet in Queensland is a perfect current/recent example), and perform creditably while others do not have such a constitution and require at least two weeks away from competitive racing.

It is not unusual for a trainer to report after a horse has backed up quickly and has run poorly that “perhaps the quick back up did not suit the horse”, which is no help to the punter but at least it’s an acknowledgement or excuse for a defeat worth recording.

In order to hazard a sensible guess about a horse’s ability to back up quickly, we need to consult it’s past performance. If it has shown in the past it can front up twice in one week or less in the appropriate class relevant to today’s race, we can back this horse with confidence.

If it has no positive quick back up form lines or has never attempted this feat, we should look at the last run in some detail and attempt to determine if the run ranged from an easy win to a hard, whip slogging finish.

If a horse attempting a quick back-up has had a seemingly hard run without any prior quick back-up runs, then this would seem to be a negative factor worth really worrying about.

The area of the quick back up has been the subject of many a system but the system falls down if the above considerations are not factored in as well as the ability of the trainer. For the patient punter who looks for the trainer AND horse combination in this area profits await and at times at quite excellent prices.

I remember having a nice collect in Perth off a horse at 25/1 some time ago when it was coming off what looked like an ordinary run six days earlier. In a previous campaign it had won at good odds after a five day spell when again it had what looked like an ordinary run. It was a case of the same horse, same trainer and same circumstances and same result.

It is, of course, pedantic to say there is a difference between seven days and eight days but we have to draw the line in the sand somewhere. Commonsense decrees the closer the spell date is to 14 days the less we punters generally need to worry, as 14 days would be an average rest time for most horses. You can rarely make a case against a horse having a 14 day break.

Once again, pedantics is an issue at the 15 day end but the closer we get to 20 days the spell date becomes more important as an inkling of fitness concerns starts to emerge. It’s possible the spell date of 20 days may have occurred because no other races were available; however, if this horse has had a history of performing best on a quick backup or at 14 days, I would start to worry just a fraction. On the positive side, the horse might be the type that requires more days away from competition than a traditional 14 days. Past form lines can help determine this best.

Of all spell dates I believe this is the one that requires the most scrutiny, as this horse is racing from Saturday three weeks ago to Saturday today or Wednesday to Wednesday, thus approximately the same class, usually. Has the horse been kept away from racing because it has not recovered from its previous run or has there been a minor injury or is it not unusual for this horse to race well after a three weeks break?

The answer to the first two questions are not calculable on their own but in conjunction with a horse’s history, we can make an informed guess which might just make us wary enough to not back it. On many occasions you will see a horse fronting up at 21 days yet all of its wins have been around the 14 day mark and I often penalise this type of horse.

I must be honest and admit I have been wrong many times but there have been many times when I have been very happy about playing it safe, either selecting another runner or dropping my bet size.

At 22 days plus we are beginning to move into uncharted territory. I start to worry if a horse I fancy has not had a race start for 28 days exactly. Some horses, however, do quite okay at exactly 28 days especially if dropped in distance.

The 28 days’ spell could be for any number of reasons not detrimental to the horse if its form history shows it performs well off such breaks or even spells (I consider a spell 60 days or longer). On the negative side, if I see a horse resuming at 28 days or longer and I note its best performances at this level or close to it hovers around spell dates of 14 days then I put a line straight through it.

The closer we get to a spell the more careful we have to be. If a horse is listed as being first-up, whether your paper has first-up as 60 or 90 days, the more questions we ask the better off we will be.

Your formguide might show a horse has won two from four first-up attempts and because it is first-up today you might well decide on that information that being first-up is not a problem. This is a foolish approach. What if the two first-up wins had been at a horse’s first two campaigns in restricted company or against its own age group as a 2yo and 3yo and today it is racing against older, more seasoned runners and obviously up in class?

Do NOT take those figures in your formguide at face value. Where did this horse finish at its last two first-up and even second-up preparations? Were those runs at this class level or close? I liken first-up and even second-up performances early in a horse’s career similar to football players . . . Some juniors really go well as juniors but when stretched to the next level cannot handle the added pressure.

It is no different with racehorses: some young horses will go through the grades in tradesmanlike fashion but others will always stall at a particular level. You MUST determine that level for first uppers or you might as well throw your money into the air and let it float away. It’s as simple as that.

In summary, may I suggest you start to watch the unusual spell dates trainers adopt, as some are quite adept at having their horses win after a quick back up or at the other end, first-up. The top trainers set spell dates for their horses that maximise their chances and the sooner you find out which trainers have that capability the more returns you will receive.

May I also suggest you become a serious student of a horse’s ability at today’s level or close to it in regards to spell dates, as there will be occasions where the trainer is forced to run a horse against previously failed spell dates in order to get that horse fit for a more important run in the future. I would tend to take the horse’s past form as my lead but if it is a trainer, I respect I will trust the trainer. I know this can be a fine line at times but as you study spell dates you begin to get a confidence level with some trainers that is irresistible.

In this article I have made several arguable points and I use the word “arguable” because none are set in concrete. However, if, after reading this article, you at least have a second think about rushing into one of those so called “first-up specialists” or have a deeper think about a quick back up runner, then I feel you will be all the better for the read.

By Roman Kozlovski