Robert Saunders Dowst, one of America's greatest handicappers of the 1930s and '40s, was never averse to getting away from level-stakes betting. In fact, he was a consistent advocate of progression betting, provided that the punter was betting GOOD horses.

Dowst, who became known as the foremost authority on the consistent racehorse, wrote a number of best-selling books as well as writing for many years for Turf & Sports Digest (in his final years he was a legal editor with the American Law Book Company).

Given the success he enjoyed betting on the turf, it behoves us to pay attention to what Dowst had to say, albeit that his advice was initially handed out some 60-odd years ago. The fundamentals remain the same.

On progression betting, Dowst was quite sincere and sensible in his beliefs. He knew it was a way to make money over and above flat betting, but he also knew it had its downside.

"No progression can be relied on to show a profit from a series of bets on horses that would have resulted in heavy loss if the wagering on them had been flat stakes," he said. "Basically, losing flat bet play can be converted into profit through a progression ONLY by wagering impossibly large amounts on the ultimate winner or winners and that is always fraught with the gravest danger.

Almost any reasonable plan of progression will show a profit when applied to horses which would have shown only nominal or small loss if bet in the same flat amount. This, of course, results from having the larger amounts on the successful horses.

When deciding on progression, it's always best to examine the background history of the selections you bet. A selection system which I recommend is very simple and I have worked a betting plan on it with marked success.

Dowst explained that his mechanical test for selection was as follows:

  1. That any horse to be eligible for play must have won at least 33 per cent of its starts.
  2. Counting wins again, it must have run in the money (1st, 2nd, 3rd) at least half the time (50 per cent-plus).

He says that his longest streak of losers from applying this principle to his selections was nine. Knowing that to be the case, he formed what he called a reasonable plan of progression.

"The progression I like, and the one I have used with success, involves making a series of flat bets rather than single ones, and increasing the amount of wagers only when and if the whole operation runs into a net loss
at the end of any single series," he wrote.

The exact betting mechanism employed by Dowst goes as follows:

  1. A betting unit is decided upon according to the bank. It can be 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 units or whatever you wish, and you operate for a series of 10 bets.
  2. If, after the tenth bet, a net loss on the series has been suffered, then the wager for the next series of bets is increased by the size of the first unit.
  3. If, after the next tenth bet of the second series, a net loss from the betting of all plays has been experienced, then the amount of each of the plays in the third series of 10 bets is advanced by another imit, and so on.  So, if the betting unit is set at, say, $2 the first series of bets will be at $2 each. If the series results in a loss, the second series of plays will call for a bet of $4 per horse; if that series also loses, the third series of 10 will demand a wager of $6 per horse.  While a loss continues, the sum to be invested would increase by $2 for each series.
  4. When a profit is gained on the entire transaction, the punter should revert to his original stake, in this case $2.
  5. If a profit is gained on a single series, but is not sufficient to regain all previous losses, the punter remains on that series for a further 10 bets, after which he again balances his accounts to find whether he is to make a further progression or return to his original investment.

    For example, said Dowst, a punter may be losing $26 and be in his third series of 10 using $6 bets. At the end of 10 bets he is showing a profit of $18 on the series, but as he'd still be losing $8 on the entire investment he would then commence with a fresh series of 10 bets with a $6 unit.
  6. Always complete a series before making any change in the betting unit.

Dowst has words of warning about 'heavier' progression betting, where the level of investment is raised after each loser, rather than after each series of bets.

He wrote: "A main attraction of a progressive mechanism in wagering before it is tried with real money, is the thought of the highest bet of a series riding on the horse that ultimately wins. The thought may be refreshing but, in actual practice, the fact is that a lot of money must have been lost in previous unsuccessful wagers to get the play up to the high level at which the bet was finally won."

Dowst was aware all those years ago of the immense importance of psychological factors in any form of staking. Much, he wrote, relied on the individual player's mental makeup.

He warned that punters had to be able to withstand the effects of a run of losers on their confidence. The ability to resist the adverse mental effects of one's own failures is the first of a number of qualities or powers that must be possessed by a successful punter, he said.

Dowst was years ahead of his time in his appreciation of the mind-battles that assail punters.

One of his pieces of advice was not to switch to progression betting just because you had lost by using level stakes. This, he said, would get the punter nowhere because if the level-stakes loss was bad, the progression move would not be able to turn things around, given the same sort of selections.

But for horses associated with his GOOD horses approach, as outlined earlier, Dowst did recommend a gradual progression of bet sizes as follows: 2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11.

Starting at $2, and increasing $1 after each loss until the tenth bet has been reached, at which point $11 is to be held until a winning day has been reached, is the gist of this staking plan.

After a profit has been achieved the plan calls for a return to the original $2 bet.

Dowst wrote: "There seems no real reason for expecting any losing streak much in excess of 10 in view of the calibre of horses played under the system."

With that statement, he was certainly showing immense confidence in his ability to pick winners. Whether the average punter in the modern day can hold such confidence is another thing. We all know that sometimes, no matter what we back, a losing run can often go well past 10.

Dowst's point was that if you are encountering losing runs that sweep beyond 10, then you are doing something wrong, and that you need to take a cold, calculating look at your whole approach to selecting. He has a fair point.

Why, if we are so good at form analysis and so on, do we encounter such bad losing runs? The more of them we encounter the more urgent it must be to re-evaluate our entire approach.

Why are we getting it so wrong? Can it be just bad luck (unlikely, if it is happening all the time).

These questions, and any others, need to be fully addressed before you embark on any progression staking plan. Dowst used his skills to produce a set of rules that ensured he was always backing highly consistent and well-fancied horses.

Dowst wrote: "The only time when a bet should be made on a horse that is well placed and has a detectable advantage is when the price is right. The price is right only when a horse is going to the post at odds longer than his real estimated chances of winning ... a genuine overlay."

Dowst's 5-minute plan
In 1935, Robert Saunders Dowst wrote a book called Winners And How To Select Them. It was a runaway best-seller. In it, Dowst revealed all the details of his personal approach to making selections.

His consistency ratings were among the first ever to be devised by professional handicappers ... and released to the betting public.

He drew up his ratings using a number of factors. We'll go into more detail about them in the August issue of PPM. To help those punters who followed his ideas, Dowst drew up his own five-minute plan.

  1. Form ratings: 1 point (highest) for win strike of 70%or more, 2 for 40 to 70%; 3 for 20 to 40%, 4 for below 20%.
  2. Money consistency: 1 point for 70% or better; 2 for 40 to 70%, 3 for 20 to 40%, 4 for less than 20%.
  3. Weight: 1 point for a weight advantage; 2 for no advantage; 3 for disadvantage.

Horse with the LOWEST SCORE is the best prospect for the race. Dowst's formula is certainly simple but effective. He used it to great effect.

by P.B. King