The name Robert Saunders Dowst pops up every now and again whenever I get into detailed discussions about horse racing handicapping, and how to pick winners and avoid losers, and so on.

Most people seem to have only the vaguest of ideas of who he was and what he did. I “discovered” his teachings many years ago and they’ve underpinned much of what I do now to try to beat the game.

Dowst was the high priest of handicapping in the 1930s and 1940s.

He was no shrinking violet, and was quite happy to let the rest of the betting public in on his ideas.

His “Consistency System” was, as James Quinn points out in his book The Best of Thoroughbred Handicapping, in its simplicity and scope a system for all times.

Quinn writes: “Dowst postulated two verifiable assumptions, from which he derived one principle of selection, and 11 rules of exclusion.

“The Dowst system was based on the precept that good horses can beat bad horses. Good horses, Dowst said, were those that beat members of a specific class consistently.

“Thus, Dowst put forth his two premises: (a) all thoroughbreds are divisible into fixed classes; and (b) when a horse wins a race or runs close he normally does so by virtue of his own speed, gameness, and quality, and not by the advantage of jockey, post position, or a clever trainer.”

The Dowst principle of selection can be boiled down to the following:

l Play to be limited to horses that have won at least a third of their starts, while finishing in the money at least half of the time, provided any qualifying horse is the only one of its kind in the race.

Dowst’s initial book came out in 1936 to wide acclaim. It rang up big profits that year and in the following year.

However, as Quinn writes, the bottom fell out of the system when so many people bet the selections that the sheer weight of money took away the profitability.

“The public bet Dowst’s consistent horses off the board, and the Dowst Consistency System stopped working,” writes Quinn.

Sixty years later, what is the Dowst legacy in terms of the 2005 punter? Does the system deserve a revival? Quinn poses this question in his book.

He explains: “Dowst on racing and handicapping is not so out of date, as the leading authority of the century’s first half left a rich and pungent body of work. He has left to handicappers as a first contri­bution a theoretical definition of class not yet improved.

“Good horses still beat bad horses, and a horse’s class is arguably best assessed by identifying the specific class of horses it can beat consistently.

“The Dowst system worked, not because he eventually discovered a working definition of consistency, but because he had precisely comprehended the true nature of thoroughbred class.

“Dowst repeatedly contended that class held the key. Indeed, the Consistency System would have been better named the Dowst Class-Consistency System, as the essential ingredient was demonstrated ability against a specific class of horse.”

According to Quinn, the downside of Dowst’s system “falls flat today” on the centre point of consistency. He singles out William Quirin’s conclusions that consistency is over-rated.

He says: “Horses that have won three or four of their past 10 starts do win more than their share of races but (a) the public overbets that kind, and (b) inconsistent horses win enough.

“Quinn showed that horses that won just one of their 10 previous starts won almost a fair share of their starts. Fred Davis’s probability studies supported Quirin on the matter of inconsistency, concluding this was insufficient reason to regard horses as non-contenders…”

Of course, the Americans love all this statistical stuff. It ties in very well with their outlook on most sports. Statistics play almost as important a role as the competitors themselves!

We can often tie ourselves in knots with complex studies on probability and the like. Yet we also cannot afford to completely ignore facts and figures.

Quinn puts forward a modified application of the Dowst Consistency System, which he says is tenable, at small investment, until profit margins are determined. The principle of selection is this:

Play to be limited to horses in “allowance” races that have won at least two of their latest six starts, provided any qualifying horse is the only one of its kind in the race.

Quinn’s reference to “allowance” races refers to American racing. For our purposes, I suggest we ignore that aspect and concentrate on checking the system on all races, irrespective of conditions.

Dowst did have a list of “exclusions” which operated with the system. It wasn’t simply a matter of backing the qualifier straight out without doing further checking.

The following are some of the elimination factors that Dowst recommended:

  1. Do not bet on slow or heavy tracks.
  2. No bets on two-year-olds.
  3. No bets on horses aged six and over.
  4. No bets on horses with a history of unsoundness.
  5. No bet on a horse when it is definitely stepped up in class.
  6. No bet if a horse is conspicuously overweighted.
  7. No sprinters are to be bet in longer races (1600m plus).
  8. No middle-distance horses to be bet in shorter races (1599m and shorter).

I have adapted these for Australian racing. Dowst also has an exclusion rule of not playing fillies and mares against male horses from April 1 to September 1 of each US racing year. Whether this rule needs to be applied in Australia is a talking point.

So, as we enter our betting year of 2005, it’s interesting to keep Dowst’s thinking in mind.

For all of what is said by Quinn and Quirin, I always feel more comfortable when I know that a horse I have backed is a consistent type. Call me a betting coward if you like, but I’ll cop the smear.

Dowst was right on target as far as I’m concerned with his belief that the best way to go was to find the true consistent horse, after exclusions. It was always the one to give the punter a run for his money in the US 60 years ago…and I think the same contention remains as valid today.

Let’s take his main contention that a horse must have a minimum 33.3 per cent strike rate (a third of its career starts). Application of this one slice of reasoning means you can begin your form studies with each field reduced to horses that have shown this consistency.

If you’d used just this ONE rule in the recent Melbourne Cup you’d have been left with just five runners to consider, and they included the winner Makybe Diva and the runner-up Vinnie Roe!

The same single rule applied in the race following the Cup (the second leg of the Daily Double) which gave you only three runners to consider, and they were the winner Stamen, the runner-up Jakodae and the fourth placegetter Landsdown House!

Okay, these are only two races plucked from hundreds in November, but they are enough to underline the power of a good win strike.

And so we come to a system based on just some elements of the Dowst ideas. It’s a system I have called The Dowst Steady Plan and I think it is well worthwhile checking out.


  1. Operate on race meetings of your choosing.
  2. Do not bet on Maidens or 2yo races.
  3. Only runners with a win strike rate of 33.3 per cent or more are to be considered (must have 10 runs or more in career).
  4. A contender must have won or run second and third at its most recent start.
  5. A contender must be a winner at the distance of the race.
  6. No bet if a horse is carrying 58kg or more (take apprentice allowances into account).

These rules give you a really good chance of ending up with a high-powered selection.

Our starting base has been that 33.3 per cent plus win strike factor. This is a huge factor in our favour. It puts us immediately on a proven galloper.

Once we have found these high strike runners we can then apply the rules to hopefully get rid of any risk types among them.

If you end up with two or more qualifiers after the application of all the rules, then I suggest you ignore the race.

The selection must be the ONLY runner in the race to have fitted the bill. This was a key part of Dowst’s original approach, and I think it’s a very sensible one.

By Philip Roy