Racing is awash with theories, systems, beliefs, slogans ... all claiming to know how to unlock the door that leads straight to the winner or provide cast-iron evidence for why that standout favourite can't win.

It's a free world, so people are entitled to believe whatever they choose. Of course, those of us who don't believe are also entitled to point out that one man's gospel is another man's myth, that often a slogan is just a few empty words.

Among the dozens of theories on why horses get beaten, one that's constantly trotted out is 'second-up syndrome'; a horse having its second start following a spell will run poorly.

It's a great standby of trainers in TV interviews and in newspaper reports when they're squaring off for a fancied runner's defeat or warning punters not to expect too much of one of their runners.

It's got the air of a genuine medical condition about it; like an attack of colic, a mare being in season or a previously undetected virus.

I have a sneaking suspicion that years ago a quick-thinking trainer, when put on the spot by an owner asking why his horse hadn't run up to par, came up with, "He was second-up after a spell; horses never win like that."

When the owner swallowed this tale, the rest of the training fraternity climbed on the bandwagon, and the punters trotted along, too.

I first came across it in 1972 or 1973, when I was living in Melbourne. The bloke who expounded the theory to me was a good judge of a horse, a fearless punter and a man whose opinion on racing matters I held in the highest regard.

The years haven't dimmed his passionate belief. Now living on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, and the owner of a few horses, one of his recent winners at the Caloundra track bolted in at 6/1.

He hadn't backed it, of course, as it was second-up after a spell!

There were, apparently, plenty of factors pointing to a win. The negatives were few or non-existent. Six to one was a juicy price. But, just as the early Christians would rather be eaten by lions than deny their religion, this apostle of the Second-Up Syndrome could not bring himself to break his creed, even on his own horse.

Intrigued about this theory all those years ago, 1 ran it past another racegoer I had some time for. If anything, this second fellow, a man of soaring intellect, was a more dedicated punter than the first bloke.

He'd have no more than half a dozen bets in a year but a couple of those involved sums that could have bought a medium-sized business.

Someone who kept his own counsel, he confessed he'd never heard of Second-Up Syndrome and considered that whatever a horse did at its first run after a spell it would improve on at its next start. He dismissed the theory out of hand.

Am I a believer? No. As an avid collector of racing theories, upon learning this one I kept a keen eye on second-up horses. There were simply too many winners among the supposed no-hopers for me to join the faith.

At one stage 1 was curious enough to go through a Racing Facts book with a highlighter and see what arose. After four letters of the alphabet I'd found enough second-up winners to begin wondering if a case could be made for a
system based solely on backing this category of runner.

For a scientific opinion, I turned to Peter Harrop. His RaceBase computer program can answer virtually any statistical question posed on the NZ thoroughbred. Whatever the truth to Second-Up Syndrome, it wouldn't escape the computer.

Here are RaceBase's findings, run on a sample of 3200 races, the average size of the fields at 11.83 horses per race. This means that, all things being equal, the chances of a horse winning should be 8.45 per cent (1 divided by 11.83 multiplied by 100).

  1. First-up runners totalled 3440. They won 225 races for a strike rate of 6.54 per cent.
  2. Second-up runners totalled 3433. They won 263 races for a strike rate of 7.66 per cent.
  3. Third-up runners totalled 3307.

They won 313 races for a strike rate of 9.46 per cent.

From these figures, we see that as horses get more race-fit, the strike rate increases. The second-up strike rate, which is within one percentage point of the norm, is better than the first-up strike rate but if the syndrome were true the strike rate would be worse.

The statistics for third-up runners are very good, pointing to horses being at or near their peak by the third run in a campaign.

Andrew Gibsori of ComputerBet also supplied figures, based on the previous 12 months' racing. Among his findings were that second-up runners who came off a place in their first-up run had a winning strike rate of 17.69 per cent (46 wins from 260) and a profit on turnover of 17.12 per cent.

This increased to a strike rate of 25.93 per cent (14 from 54) and a profit of 66.7 per cent if they'd placed at their previous two starts (basically, they'd gone for a spell when in form and had come back in form).

These figures were for horses who had spelled longer than 90 days and whose second-up run was within 14 days of the first, a distinction that Auckland form student Michael Fong assures me is 'true' second-up syndrome.

Successful punting is successful money management. Simple as that, and there are two key factors that will ensure punting money is successfully managed: patience and faith.

Patience is needed to resist temptation. We buy a formguide, we open it and we start trawling for winners. Each meeting has 10 races (note: in NZ) so there has to be 10 winners. Can we pick the 10 winners? Not a prayer, Should we try? Waste of time. 

By all means, look at every race. But most will prove to be difficult, if not impossible, to sort out. Just pass on these races and concentrate on those that throw up a candidate or two for further study.

If there's nothing that meets our requirements this week, there'll be another meeting and a glance at the TAB's handbook shows a whole season of scheduled racedays. So, take your time.

There's no law that says you have to bet on every race or at every meeting.

The biggest test of patience, where it's most needed, is after a losing bet. There'll be plenty of these. By its very nature, horseracing is hazardous, for horse, man and money.

The desire to recoup losses as quickly as possible is understandable. Knowing the likely consequences of giving in to that desire will help to resist it.

Very few gamblers were ever ruined by one bet that came unstuck. But plenty have ended up penniless after a series of losers; each bet prompted, not by its own merits, but by a wish to quickly regain the losses of the previous one.

Every loss should be treated as just a small part of the big picture, where wins and losses are bound to be intermingled in a haphazard fashion. A battle lost doesn't mean a war is lost.

And neither does a battle won mean that the way is won. The desire to increase the frequency and size of our betting after some success also needs to be resisted.

All the good work can be brought undone by lashing out carelessly in the mistaken belief that this is easy, that we've got the game beaten. It isn't easy and eternal vigilance combined with discipline is needed to stay ahead.

The other side of the coin to resisting having a bet simply because we're behind for the day or because our pockets are full is having faith in our judgement when a candidate is sorted out.

American author John Whitaker in his book Handicapping Trainers tells of being in a two-way punting partnership in the mid-1970s. He was 'Horse', doing the analysis and making the final selections; his partner was 'Cash', placing the bets and looking after the finances.

All the betting was done on track and they would have two, maybe three, bets per day. The decision to bet or pass wasn't ready until every angle was covered, if the decision was to bet, Cash would leave his seat, go to the betting window and place $300 to win on the selection.

After 18 months, Whitaker lost his partner. He tried carrying on alone ... after all, how hard is it to place a bet? Well, Whitaker found it extremely hard. Getting off his seat became a struggle.

As soon as he reached the queue at the betting window, all sorts of doubts began to pour through his mind. Often he would return to his seat without making a bet or would put on just a fraction of the intended $300.

He discovered just how tight he was with a buck. After flying solo for six months or so he flagged racing and allowed his life to take other directions.

But he wouldn't be alone in his dilemma about handing over a sizeable amount of money to a complete stranger in exchange for a scrap of paper with some numbers on it.

All this simply because it's been figured that a certain horse will finish in front of ten or a dozen others.

The easy way around this problem is to cut down the size of the bet.

Which is fine if we get sweaty palms and stomach cramps when we put a hundred dollar bet on, nature is telling us that something closer to $10 is our upper limit.

And yet, the chances of coming out in front with a series of ten, $10 bets on a single day's racing have to be rated as slim. Extend that to ten racedays and the chances lessen further.

There will be collects of course, but any winnings will be swallowed up by the larger number of losing bets.

Full details of Gil Dymock's new book Winning Ways can be found at his website at:

The book sells for $NZ35 (including postage and packaging) from Winning Ways, P.O. Box 856, Whangarei, New Zealand, or you can order via the website.

By Gil Dymock