There are two ways you can go in betting. Either way can lead to success or disaster. As with most things in life, much depends on you. If you make the wrong decisions, nothing will save you.

So what are these two avenues in racing? One is to take the path that almost everyone else takes and that is to back the favourites, or the near-favourites, and accept the fact that unless you are blindingly creative in your staking you are going to take a loss on the gambling dollar of around 9 cents at least.

The second avenue, and one which is becoming more and more appealing, is to bet against the crowd. This is a tack that we discussed in last month's article 'Beating The Crowd' in which I brought you the views of The Optimist, Alan Potts and Andy Beyer.

This month, it's the turn of the American expert Mark Cramer, author of best-selling books like Kinky Handicapping and Kinkier Handicapping, plus British experts Che Van der Wheil and Nick Mordin.

Each has firm views on how to bet. Cramer makes a lifestyle, and a healthy living, from what he likes to call 'guerrilla handicapping' adopting unusual handicapping methods to find longshot winners. One of his favourite expressions is that 'the kinky shall inherit the turf'.

Most bettors, he says in Kinkier Handicapping, still stick to handicapping methodologies that are derived from mainstream thought processes and conformist mentalities. In other words, they choose these conventional methods in a mainly tote system that penalises 'straight' thought and rewards non-conformism.

Cramer looks for patterns that everyone else ignores. How does a particular trainer go with first-up runners at a certain track? Which horses are bred for handling wet tracks? Which horses are overachievers in that they consistently turn in big runs when unfancied in the betting? How can you identify a certain type of horse that gives you the best odds? And so on.

To put it simply, Cramer looks for the angles that few others think about or care about. He is happiest when his money is on the horse that most others believe cannot win.

In Kinkier Handicapping, he features the stories of a handful of US punters who have the same oddball approach as he does.

Cramer admires these bettors. He describes them as being 'in love with calculated risk' and he adds: "In this age of celebrities, these horseplayers should be heroes in the media, for having achieved the impossible dream.

"But our cultural mind conditioners do not conceive that a bettor who beats a virtually impossible game deserves more recognition than a guy who buys real estate a la Donald Trump, or an appointed cabinet economist who engages in a guessing game and gets paid, right or wrong. Pros at the races get paid only when they are right."

The lesson to be learned from what Mark Cramer has to say is that if you, the punter, desire to win over a lengthy period you need to find a different path to that of all your fellow punters. Stay in the same lifeboat, and eventually you sink.

While Cramer looks for the oddball 'guerrilla warfare' tactics, Britain's Che Van der Wheil adopts a more rigidly conservative approach. Not for him any wild theories, or desperate searching out of patterns. His belief is that the game needs to be kept simple.

The VDW approach, according to his biographer Tony Peach, is "a method, not a system, which produces a numerical evaluation of the odds based on relevant factors, thereby creating a picture from which it is possible to determine if there is a winner in the race and not OF the race."

VDW says that a significant percentage of races are won by form horses and this percentage can be greatly increased by being 'selective'. Backing anything but a form horse, he claims, is bucking the odds.

"Good consistent form is what is required to produce results which provide for long-term profit and this must be balanced with the other factors in the equation: Consistent form + ability + capability + probability + hard work equals winners," says VDW in Peach's booklet Betting The VDW Way.

VDW's actual approach basically calls for a balancing of the various factors and evaluating completely devoid of sentiment.

Nick Mordin, one of Britain's speed-ratings gurus, admits that he only discovered how to bet properly in more recent years. Before that he was picking plenty of winners but betting them poorly. He thought it was all a game of just picking winners and backing them to win. What he forgot was the value element.

"I was far more concerned with being able to brag about the winners I had given than I was about showing a profit," Nick writes in his best-seller Betting For A Living. "I hated the prospect of picking 10 or 20 long-priced losers in a row, even if this meant I would be able to boast about being the most profitable tipster in the country at the end of the month."

In short, then, Nick came to the realisation - as Mark Cramer did that the way to win more involves backing a greater percentage of losers! To become a winner, he says, you must accept losing on a scale you might presently find unacceptable.

"This is a great lesson you too must learn, if you genuinely want to win money at horse racing," he writes. "You must stop looking for winners and start looking for value."

VDW, again more conservative, stresses his belief that the first step in winning at racing is possessing the right temperament.

He says: "The temperament of a successful punter demands that he sees things as they are, and to evaluate everything with cold, unemotional logic. There is no room for impulsiveness, no room for fads or fancies, no room for high elation with success or sickening gut feelings when things go wrong.

"You ... must proceed in a methodical manner, fully researched and governed by logic. Every thought and move must be positive. Learn to have confidence in your own ability."

Mark Cramer would, at least, agree with VDW's final point but not necessarily with the others. His philosophy is that of a guerrilla engaged in warfare. He strikes and then heads for the hills before emerging to have another strike. Some strikes are successful, others are failures.

But the strikes that do succeed are spectacular ones. There are two ways he sees to beat the enemy. You can do it from the trenches, suffering many casualties, using traditional handicapping techniques, such as pace, speed and class.

Or you can become what he calls a 'guerrilla handicapper' and attack only when "you have a definite advantage, during those moments when the enemy is caught unaware, when kinky analysis transcends classical handicapping."

Cramer goes on to explain that punters who adopt this approach should attack only when they feel they have a unique 'edge'.

I guess the most recent example of this was in the Blue Diamond Stakes, when those punters who follow the Lee Freedman stable in major Group races found themselves betting 'against the crowd' with Freedman's two runners, Knowledge and Rose Of Danehill.

Here was a trainer with a fantastic Group One strike rate, and an equally fabulous winning percentage with two-year-olds in classics, and yet his pair were being sent out at odds of around 28/1 and 8/1 on the TAB, and at 20/1 and 7/1 with bookmakers.

The 'edge' was definitely there for Freedman supporters and, betting against the public, they cleaned up when Knowledge and Rose Of Danehill ran 1st and 2nd for a quinella return of more than 120/1.

Says Cramer: "The bright side is that with guerrilla handicapping we minimise the risk of ever being forced to surrender. And meanwhile we can show a positive return on investment in a hazardous occupation, which usually buries its practitioners. The kinky handicapper looks for opportunities that defy the logic of nuts and bolts handicapping and therefore assure a substantial overlay."

VDW agrees with Cramer that even the conservative punter has to have the odds in his favour. He recommends you avoid a bet when the odds dictate otherwise.

"The acquisition of temperament will guide you in what is inevitably a very narrow path," says VDW "The successful punter evaluates unemotionally and with no thought of finding THE WINNER. His evaluation when complete will then tell him if there is a winner in a race."

VDW is a believer in 'positive thinking' and getting in touch with your subconscious mind. Some people are said to be lucky, intuitive or possess know-how because everything goes right for them - VDW says this is due to the fact they are in touch with their subconscious mind and so they react positively.

Much of Mark Cramer's betting 'edges' relate to American racing, but the general thrust of what he has to say has relevance to all punters anywhere in the world. And no more so than in Australia, where the betting public is well informed but continues to stake poorly.

Read carefully what he says in Kinkier Handicapping: "In order to beat the races, you have to be a creative, inventive person, shedding conventional intellectual inhibitions. But being a creative person, you will eventually confront a conflict. When it becomes a task, an obligation, when it requires extraordinary investments in time that will stifle the chance for other creative endeavours, are you going to be willing to make the sacrifice?

"For me, betting remains an erotic passion precisely because I have allowed for certain limitations. There are times when I want it and can't have it, and this heightens the passion."

Cramer's betting approach disdains much of the usual speed and pace figures on which US punters rely. He maintains that one of the great skills a successful punter needs is to know which races to leave alone.

In his book, he writes: "I have wrestled with the issue of betting psychology for many years and I have come to the conclusion that a significant portion of what goes into a healthy betting attitude involves the skill of passing races.

"A number of handicappers who outshine me in the realm of handicapping intellect ... have not been able to rid themselves of the urge for action. Others who are less seduced by the one-night stands of bad bets nevertheless have difficulties in discriminating between their own true insights and the undervalued knowledge that belongs to the crowd."

Bad bets, says Mark, are short lasting moments of lust that end in disappointment, the antithesis of true eroticism. A structured programme for good bets that lead to long-term profits triggers a lasting erotic pleasure, he says.

"Eroticism involves the skill and the will to refrain, equivalent to passing races, so that the feeling may gloriously intensify with each genuine experience," he writes in Kinkier Handicapping. "Kinky handicappers want to make the feeling last and they do so by refraining whenever necessary in order to nurture a truly fruitful and rewarding relationship."

Summing up his philosophy, Che Van der Wheil says: "I've tried to get across the necessity of adherence to things which proved essential during many years as a successful punter:

Temperament, without which all else fails; Class, the kingpin; Form, which many seem unable to define; the balancing of all related factors; and that frequently overlooked little thing called hard work.

"All that should concern you are the relevant factors concerning the race to be run today."

  • KINKIER HANDICAPPING, by Mark Cramer (TBS Publishing, P.O. Box 6283, Annapolis, MD 24101, USA), available from the Gambler's Book Club, 630 South 11th Street, Las Vegas, Nevada, 89101, USA, cost approximately $44, including air-mail postage.
  • BETTING FOR A LIVING, by Nick Mordin (Aesculus Press, P.O. Box 10, Oswestry, Shropshire, SYIO, 7QR, UK) cost about $36, plus postage.
  • BETTING THE VDW WAY, edited by Tony Peach (Moss Publications, 3 Alfred Avenue, Roe Green, Worsley, Manchester M28, 2TX, England), cost on application. Also available, THE GOLDEN YEARS OF VAN DER VMEIL and RACING INMY SYSTEM.

NEXT MONTH: We take a look at the betting approaches of James N. Selvidge and Paul 'Pedro' Amatio, two professionals with 'rebel' ideas on betting and selection. 

By Jon Hudson