It never ceases to amaze me how many people take up an interest in horse-racing, and betting, at a late time in their life.

At a race meeting recently I got chatting with an elderly chap and at one point in the conversation I remarked,

"Well, you'll remember that better than me," in relation to a horse from some 40 years ago.

No, he told me, he had no interest in racing until he'd retired from working some 10 years earlier, when he was 65.

I comment on this rather odd phenomenon because I recently read a book by a successful English punter. His name is Sidney Harris and he had no interest in horseracing until he was in his mid-40s.

He is now a full-time professional gambler but he made his big money from the stock market, trading in options. His biggest bet in horseracing so far won him some $800,000.

Back in 1987, on Black Tuesday in the October of that year, he bet at midday that the market would continue to freefall.

In his book, he tells how he bought "puts" for some $69,000 and sold them 24 hours later for $225,000.

Retiring from the stock market game, he decided to devote his time, and money, to horse-racing. His book is a result of that new obsession in his life. It's called The Essential Guide To Backing Winners, and although it centres on racing in the United Kingdom, it contains many useful hints for down under fans.

When Harris wrote the book, he was in his seventh year as a professional punter and, he says, no two years have been the same.

"Looking back at these seven years, I realise that I have been on both a roller-coaster ride and an acute learning curve," he says. "The objective of this book is to clarify, beyond doubt, that the best way to find winners is through constant and consistent study, and that only by taking a methodical approach is it possible to make sense of the chaos that is unleashed the moment the starting stalls open for a horse race."

Harris points out that most punters tend to rely on luck.

"Each punter's journey is quite different, travelling an uncertain route without the benefit of a signpost," says Harris. "Entrenched misguided ideas lead punters to repeat mistakes that eventually become debilitating and regularly indulged habits.

"Without a definite strategy, pinpointing mistakes becomes impossible."

So how does a professional like Sidney Harris come to grips with the vagaries of the formlines every day? How different is his approach to that of the average rank-and-file punter?

Much of his time is spent watching Britain's Racing Channel (the equivalent of our Sky Channel). He looks for horses that are treated leniently by their riders, his intention being to back them in the future when, hopefully, they will be trying to win.

"There's an art in doing this," he writes. "When watching a handicap race with an eye to a possible future winner, objectivity is the key. Watch the race two or three times and you'll be surprised how little you picked up on in the first showing.

"I've watched many races half a dozen times before spotting which horse might be a probable winner in the near future."

Harris has his own set of unbreakable rules. They're worth considering:

  1. Never back a horse unproven in the going.
  2. Never back a horse from an out-of-form stable.
  3. Never back a horse unsuited to the track.
  4. Never back a horse ridden by a jockey with a poor record at the track.
  5. The same goes for a trainer with a poor record at the track.

Harris is keen on latching onto trainers and jockeys who have winning records at individual tracks. This is an area of the form that is often overlooked in Australia, probably because the statistics haven't been freely available, though they are nowadays, so any punter with the angle in mind can certainly go looking for clues in this direction.

Harris has some interesting things to say about bookmakers, possibly not startlingly new, but enough to serve as an added warning to those who still bet with the bagmen and who still don't truly understand what the game is all about so far as the maths goes.

"The bookmaker uses the illusion of fleeting value and barrow-boy psychology to entice the punter," writes Harris.

"The punter has to understand that most of the figures he sees on the bookmaker's board are tantamount to a mirage.

"Personally, I rarely have a bet below 3/1 and only in exceptional circumstances would I take 11/4. But at the far end of the spectrum I'm looking to find the right horse, because the percentages are relatively in my favour.

"As we know, the difference between 2/1 ON and evens is approximately 16 per cent. The difference between a 9/1 chance and a 33 /1 chance is approximately 7 per cent. In this area, we have to play the bookmaker at his own game.

"We have to, wherever possible, look for favourites to oppose. By the sheer fact that favourites are the worst value, they create value at the other end of the scale. The shorter the price of the favourite, the more value it creates in other horses."

Value, he adds, depreciates below 3/1 and becomes acute below evens.

"Interestingly, below 3/1 is where most bets are struck, pro rata. Therefore, for value we're looking to back bigger-priced horses and have to make provision for losing runs; they are part of the game.

"Coping with losing runs is easy. You only need to do one thing: stake so well within your means that you feel no emotion at losing. The moment emotion enters the equation you can be assured you are staking too high."

As for staking itself, Harris believes in level stakes, and he hands out a useful approach in his book. The chapter is titled 80 over 20 and the Relativity Bank.

"For those who have been backing eachway and staking erratically for years, breaking these expensive habits is difficult," says Harris.

"The following is a way of easing out of backing eachway. Have an 80 over 20. That's an 80 per cent win bet and 20 per cent place bet."

Harris's strategy is to work from a 100-point bank. If your initial bank is $1000, then each bet is $10. If your average bet is currently $100, you should be working from a $10,000 bank.

Harris writes: "This is a Relativity Bank that has a built-in 'feel good' factor. You're working from well within your comfort zone, runs of losses will not affect your equilibrium, and emotion will not be motivating your next move.

"If you're tempted to increase your stake to cover past losses, don't contemplate doing this on a horse under 5/1. If you do, you'll be playing your money straight into the bookmaker's hands."

Perhaps the most pertinent parts of Harris's book are his comments about form. A true believer, he implores his readers to come to terms with the fact the form book's contents contain all the clues necessary to finding winners.

He writes: "Form is about ands, its, buts and bidden agendas. It's difficult to concentrate when studying form when we are constantly questioning and attempting to second-guess the form book.

"The form book is our map. Adrift at sea, any map may seem preferable to no map. But what use is a map of London's Underground when you're abandoned in the Atlantic? We have to learn to navigate by the stars and consider only form we believe to be irrefutable.

"We are looking for truly run races; these are our lodestone. And within these races we are only interested in the horses that contributed a sustained effort.

"Although we cannot legislate for what might happen in the future, we must be able to discern what actually happened in the past. In effect, we configure an Irrefutable Form Book, which concentrates on horses only when they showed their best.

"If only three horses in an eight runner race made a race of it, we ignore the other five."

Like all books of its genre, Sidney Harris's doesn't go all the way in solving life's greatest riddle, the racetrack, but it does offer some valuable advice. It won't make you rich overnight, as Harris will be the first to admit.

I've read numerous books in recent years, and all have given me a little something that has benefited my own game. This, I suggest, is the best we can hope for from a book on racing and betting, no matter if written by a journalist or a professional punter.

By Brian Blackwell