In this series of articles, PPM editor Brian Blackwell and US expert Barry Meadow share their views on the fundamentals of handicapping. Meadow's ideas come from his lifelong pursuit of profit in US racing. Brian gives the Aussie angle.

Barry Meadow: Although countless players have attempted to reduce handicapping to systems and angles, most experienced players understand the game is far too complex for this. I prefer the comprehensive approach: Learn as much about the race, the track, the entrants and the connections as possible, and use this information to form your opinions.

Brian Blackwell: Mostly I agree, though I do feel that systems and offbeat angles can be a useful approach from a methodical point of view, even if only to add system and angles selections to your exotic bets. Many times, you can swot up the form for hours and hours and miss the winner, while a sensible system can nab the winner in a tick.

But, yes, Barry's right in suggesting that this is a complex game. It requires enormous attention to detail and much instinctive judgement, and it's this latter aspect of things that a lot of punters never master. Some guys are brilliant at it. It's like sport, some people have an instinctive skill, or genius, while others don't and these latter people end up running or playing for fun, while the instinctive ones win gold medals.

BM: There are two major areas that handicappers must consider: The historical record for each horse and the  circumstances of today's race.

Broadly, handicapping falls into several categories:

Can generally be measured and includes such factors as speed figures or pace ratings or power ratings, earnings, class levels faced successfully, etc.

Can usually, but not always, be analysed and includes such factors as recent finishes, recent speed numbers, layoff patterns, workouts, body language on race day, etc.

Can usually be analysed and includes trainer, jockey and owners, percentages overall and in recent months, trainer specialties, hot/cold stables, etc.

This is mostly guesswork because it must be estimated, taking in breeding, sales prices, significant trainer switches, distance switches, blinkers on, etc.

This also is often guesswork and includes the probable pace scenario, the influence of post position, an analysis of jockey styles, questions about horses whose style is unclear, etc.

BB: This just goes to show that there isn't a great deal of difference in form analysis anywhere in the world. Here in Australia we more or less follow the same guidelines as Barry has outlined.

I've never been a keen speed ratings man but I know this is an area which serious punters are starting to examine in greater detail. I'm afraid the prospect terrifies me of trying to co-relate race times from all our various tracks, with their different shapes, different home straights, and their general quirks.

How can we compare a time at, say, Ballarat with a time recorded at Moonee Valley. Both are very different tracks. And then there's the pace problem ... slow races, fast races early, and all that. It's a puzzle to me but I know that very good judges like our own E.J. Minnis, and Dennis Walker from The Rating Bureau, have really come to grips with the problem.

BM: Even under the general categories, guesswork is often a factor. Did the horse run poorly last start because of a track bias, or is he tailing off?

If a horse turned in a big win five weeks ago and is entered for the first time since, what kind of form is he really in? Was that fast workout an indication of something good, was it misrecorded?

Because horse-racing handicapping has so many pieces of information to be analysed, much of which is contradictory or uncertain, it has long posed an intellectual challenge.

For many, it is a confounding yet wonderful hobby. Many players buy a formguide each day, handicap, and rarely bet. Find a roulette player who does the same!

BB: I often tell non-racing people that horse-racing selection is an intellectual challenge, and they look mystified. What's intellectual about a horse race, they seem to be thinking. But that's what racing is, a giant, never-ending, absorbing, frightening, frustrating challenge to the brain and the instinct.

Each race is a mystery. Each offers up its clues, often a myriad of them. The handicapper, preparing to put his money on the result of his deliberations, has to sift through these layers of clues, decide which to ignore, and which to embrace.

The sorts of questions that Barry mentions are just the tip of the iceberg. As punters, we know we have to answer so many questions as we go through each horse's formlines. I guess each of us does it differently, and each of us has his or her own way of chucking out contenders, and giving our vote to others.

Rarely will two punters agree on the top three contenders in a race; just check out any tipsters' poll and you'll see the evidence there of how individual handicappers can be poles apart in their deliberations and decisions.

BM: In this article, we'll look at how you MIGHT approach the races. But there are never any hard and fast rules, because context is everything. I've never met two players with exactly the same approach.

Even among successful professionals there is a wide variety of ways to do this. You may have your own particular approach, and this is not meant as a replacement for what you are doing. If something's working, stick with it.

Before beginning to sift through the runners, read the Race Conditions. By understanding these, you can guess who belongs in the race. The rule is this: What is each horse doing in this race?

Is he entered simply to get some work? Does today's appearance have the look of a prep, designed to help the horse get ready for something else down the road? A sharp player will see if there is another spot where the horse might have been a better fit.

The reading of the conditions also includes checking the distance and the surface of today's race. Few horses are equally adept at all distances. Even a switch from 1200m to 1300m can make a huge difference to some horses.

Track conditions are in the same category. Some horses handle hard turf but not soft.

BB: Barry's hitting on some very basic truths about form analysis. It's true that we each have our ideas about how to do things.

When I settle down with the formguide, I usually follow a pattern. I have my list of "horses to follow" in my mind and my first job is to see if any are engaged. If they are, I circle them in coloured biro (usually red).

Then I go looking for positive factors for each horse. I circle, in green, these factors . . . like good trainer, good draw, good jockey, good percentages, winner at the track, winner at the distance, suited on the going. By the time all these green circles have been slotted in, I am starting to get a picture of each runner, and how strong it may be.

But now I start searching for the actual context of the race. Who is well placed, and who isn't. I look initially for "class" aspects. Which runners are down in class, how did they go last start, how much weight turnaround is there?

After this, I am after good form last start, and then at the last two or three starts. I check weights from last start to today. A horse may have carried 2kg under the Limit, thanks to an apprentice allowance, last start in a Mares Class 6 and now she's in a Mares Class 3 and handicapped on 58kg on a 53kg Limit.

With no allowance, she's going to carry 5kg over the Limit, and effectively she is 7kg negative on that last-start run in higher class.

The question to be answered is this: Can the mare cope with the additional weight and win the weaker race? I will  now look for other clues. How has she performed in similar class before, and how much weight did she carry? Is she suited by current conditions?

With this particular horse, say, there is a positive formline in that she's had three starts at the current distance for two wins and a 2nd. That's good. Against this is the fact that she's started at the track three times and failed to run a place!

I go through all the runners to examine their latest starts, and to assess the variations in weight. It's surprising how often you can spot a horse that gets in well, and one that gets in tough.

Once all this work is done, the time arrives to make some judgements. I try to pin the main chances down to five or six; sometimes it can be done easily, other times it's harder to separate the contenders. If this happens, I will skip the race or spend some more time on the race with a view to sussing out a longshot.

BM: Take care not to look solely at the horse's last race, or last couple of races. There are many reasons why a horse doesn't run to his ratings, including but not limited to unsuitable distance, unsuitable track conditions, track biases, pace problems, trouble in the running, wrong surface, different racetrack, class questions, and much more.

Some players use projected ratings, or pars, to help determine this. For instance, the par for a $20,000 3YO filly claimer at Up-and-Down might be 103 under your figures. If three horses have exceeded this number recently and nobody else has beaten a 98, it's not likely someone will jump up and surprise.

At this stage you're not handicapping, but weighing and sifting and measuring and calculating. You have no concern with pace or form or class. You're simply getting a feel for each horse's ability.

Horses are far more likely to win when dropped in class than when raised in class. There are several reasons for this: The easier pace of the lower class, the lower final figures, the fact that a horse is often dropped after a dull effort and then simply returns to his usual effort, the theory that a horse might not have been well meant in the higher class, particularly after a layoff.

Class and speed are interrelated, in that the classiest horses go the fastest. However, experienced players understand that a performance against $25,000 claimers is generally more meaningful than the same performance against $8000 class.

While horses do go in and out of class levels just as they go in and out of form, in general the higher class race presents a horse with many more potential rivals.

Maybe nobody in for $8000 can attain those numbers on their best days but half a dozen horses might step up to do this in the higher ranked group.

When you're reviewing the class levels of each horse, you want to look at how successfully the horse has competed at those levels, rather than simply whether he put in an appearance but did nothing.

Sometimes it's difficult to gauge class levels, and the more such horses you have in the race, the more difficult will be the handicapping.

What to do with a horse shipped in from New Zealand? What about a second-time starter who debuted in a straight maiden race, did nothing, and is now in a $40,000 race?

What about the horse once trained by Izzy Incompetent, now switched to a 30 per cent strike-rate wizard who  steps him up three levels? While recent form of course is important, any horse which has shown back class must be monitored carefully because there is a chance he might return to his previous ability.

BB: I'm always looking back for a clue to what might happen today. I am a great believer in horses repeating something they've done well before. So course and distance specialists play a big role in my form assessments. I tend to lean towards them, especially if I'm faced with the task of splitting some contenders with not much between them.

What Barry is stressing is the fact that no stone can be left unturned. You have to do the leg work. You will get away with a winner or two with scant form analysis but in the long term you will miss out time and again if you fail to play the game properly.

NEXT MONTH: Barry and Brian go more deeply into aspects of form, and reveal the positive characteristics to look for. They also look at the influence of a horse's connections. How much faith can you place in certain trainers and jockeys?

* Barry Meadow is regarded as one of America's leading writers on horse-racing and gambling. Barry is the author of the popular Meadow's Racing Monthly, a newsletter devoted to all aspects of betting on horse-racing.

Information on Barry's newsletter and his best-selling books can be obtained from his website at:

Click here to read Part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read Part 4.
Click here to read Part 5.
Click here to read Part 6.

By Brian Blackwell and Barry Meadow