In his best-selling book, Money Secrets At The Racetrack, the US handicapping guru Barry Meadow makes the point that in betting the actual task of picking winners is overrated.

Rightly, he stresses that you can make money at the races even with very few winners, and you can lose money if you collect a lot.

"Shopping for bargains, not just picking winners, is the key to making money at racetrack betting," says Meadow.

"Seek overlays, those animals being sent away at more than their true odds."

Now, of course, we come to the crunch question. How do we know when a price is a bargain price? Can such a thing be easily judged? And what if we're wrong?

Well, all these are valid questions, but the answers fit neatly into one: If you don't make an attempt to pinpoint the true value of a horse's chance, then you'll always have little or no idea about whether it's going off at a bargain price or not.

Finding the so-called "true odds" is a great challenge for any punter, but I've always believed it's essential you get that "betting line fever". That's right, draw up your own prices, work at them and do all you can to get them as accurate as possible.

Remember always: you are not trying to mirror the morning newspaper's pre-post betting market; you are trying to assess the true worth of each runner.

Serious punters around the world face the challenge of finding the true odds every day.

Meadow explains it like this:

Analyse chances, rather than attempt to pick winners.

He writes: "Every race may have a hundred different scripts. In one scenario, a horse who usually breaks slowly suddenly jets from the gate; in another, a speed duel fails to materialise; in a third, the favourite is pinched (squeezed) at the start.

"Though you only get one chance to play a race, think long term: If this race were run 100 times, how many times would each horse win?"

The mental side of this sort of betting approach is a tough one, and, frankly, impossible for the majority of punters to handle. They find they cannot devote the time and energy required, and they lack the skills and judgement required to sift the form and make a determination about price.

Instead, they rely on the work of the newspaper betting markets man. They accept that the prices in the papers are the accurate ones and they work from them, yet anyone who looks at these markets for just a week or two will soon realise how wildly inaccurate they can be.

The aim of the serious punter is to make his own set of prices, based on careful form analysis, and then to set out to achieve value. He should bet only when there is value available.

Most betters, as we know, want to put their money on their selection no matter what. They will bet on no-value selections and think nothing of it, except to perhaps curse when they lose, as they often will.

Instead of looking for winners, you seek the best bet for the odds, says Meadow. Sometimes it will be a win bet on one horse; other times it's a place bet, or some exacta combinations.

Let's assume you are looking at a field of eight runners. You do the form and you know with some surety that you can eliminate two of them.

You can now frame your market for the remaining six. You can do this using your own nous. Put the contenders "in order" and then ask yourself that tantalising question: How many times would each horse win the race if it were run 100 times?

You could end up with an initial market like this:

Horse A: 3/1
Horse B: 4/1
Horse C: 5/1
Horse D: 6/1
Horse E: 7/1
Horse F: 8/1

Percentage-wise, these prices go like this: 25, 20, 16.67, 14.29, 12.5, 11.11. These add up to almost 100%. Now, I always work to a 90% market, so I'd be adjusting the prices to accommodate this figure.

So let's look again. Maybe you feel that Horse A is a stronger chance than 3/I. Okay, let's make it 2/1, which is 33%. You feel that Horse F is a worse chance than 8/1, so let's make him 12/1 (7.69%). Horse E, too, fails to pass further inspection and you wind him out to 12/1 as well (7.69%).

Horse B can be eased to 9/2 (18%), Horse C can be moved to 6/1 (14.29%) and Horse D is eased to, say, 8/1 (11.11%).

Now your percentages look like this:

Horse A: 2/1 (33%)
Horse B: 9/2 (18%)
Horse C: 6/1 (14.29%)
Horse D: 8/1 (11.11%)
Horse E: 12/1 (7.69%)
Horse F: 12/1 (7.69%).

The percentages add up to almost 92%, which is just about right.

If you're happy that the prices truly reflect each runner's actual chance in the race, then you are ready for the next part of the big game. You need to secure the value.

Many professional punters will want to secure an extra percentage gain on their assessments. For example, you may require that in order to bet a horse you should get at least half a point to a point or two above what you have assessed.

This means, you'll want at least 5/2 about your 2/1 chance, at least 5/1 or even 11/2 about your 9/2 chance, at least 7/1 about your 6/1 chance, at least 9/1 or 10/1 about your 8/1 chance and maybe 14/1 or 15/1 even about your two 12/1 chances.

Listen to what Meadow says in Money Secrets At The Racetrack: "Our own line, no matter how good we get, will never be quite as accurate as the public's. Underlays, unfortunately, always do better than overlays.

"For example, horses we make even-money may well win 50% of the time, but those that wind up going off at 3/5 might win 56% while those who wind up at 6/4 might win only 42%. By allowing for errors, we give ourselves a safety margin."

Meadow has his own chart for win overlays and his assessments are well worth keeping in mind. They go as follows:

2/5 or below4/5
1/2 or 3/5evens
7/5 or 6/42/1
8/5 or 9/55/2
9/2 or 5/17/1
7/1-plusexactas only

These are interesting figures. Converted to TAB dividend terms, those odd prices, like 6/5 and 7/5, would be $2.20 and $2.40 (for $1). The price 8/5 would be $2.60 and 9 / 5 would be $2.80.

Meadow says that assuming your odds line is accurate, the 50% requirement he uses theoretically ensures at least a 2217, edge on every bet (a 4/5 shot going off at 6/5 yields 22.2% while a 9/2 shot going off at 7/1 yields 45.5%).

Meadow, and other professionals, will always warn any novice priceliners that underlays always outperform overlays. This is the reason why the 50% bonus on the expected price is required.

If your even-money overlays win just 42% of the time at a payoff of $2.50 (for $1), you'll still have a 5% edge, enough to succeed. And, as Meadow points out, your even money shot will sometimes pay more than $2.50.

Most professionals will restrict their actual bets to the main two or three contenders. They say it's impossible to try to bet every overlay in every race and, anyway, no-one can get it that right!


Money Secrets At The Racetrack, by Barry Meadows, available from

By Martin Dowling