Our US contributor, the informed and authoritative Barry Meadow, has to be one of the best "down to earth" straight shooters in the racing business.

In his articles for PPM over the years, extracted from his Meadow's Racing Monthly, he has shown time and again that when it comes to betting, and selection, there are few straighter shooters than him.

Ask Barry a direct question and you'll get a direct answer, as unpalatable as that answer might be. For example, here's how Barry deals with some pertinent questions from readers. He says his advice is a "reality check".

Q: So how can I make money at the track if I'm not that good a handicapper?

A: You probably won't. Why not just enjoy racing for what it is to you, a pleasant hobby that brings you excitement and pleasure.

Q: But if some people make consistent money at the track, why can't it?

A: Are you willing to do the work necessary to succeed at the track? Study the trainers? Watch the replays? Make your own figures? Cheek out the horses in the paddock? And then have the discipline to bet only when you feel you have an edge?

Barry Meadow has distinct thoughts about all aspects of the betting game. He's a realist and he knows that awful losing streaks can happen at any time to anyone. Plus the days when nothing goes right.

"Some days you're right about everything, and some days you're wrong about everything," he says.

"Every obvious lone favourite gets hooked, while every probable speed duel never materialises. Every horse who figures to go forward goes in reverse, while horses you never considered run the race of their lives.

"Your top-rated jockey manages to get blocked on two of your selections, while some horse you thought about playing but decided to pass wins at 5/1.

"Not to worry. Let's say that over the course of the season you average 20 per cent wins. So out of each 100 bets, your expectation is to win 20. But maybe sometimes you'll win just 12, and other times 28.

"And even if you do win 20 of your next 100 bets, there's no way to tell which 20 will be victorious. Maybe you'll lose 34 in a row and then go on a tear, or maybe you'll win five of your next six and then never have such a hot streak again."

Talking of one of his wipeout days, Barry says: "The day after my wipeout I made three bets. The first two ran 2nd to continue the snake bitten streak. But the third guy won, and all was again right with the world."

On the mechanics of betting, Barry is adamant that the only successful bettors will be those who play using their commonsense and those with a sense of discipline.

He says: "Trying to force a play when there's no good reason to play, these experienced gamblers wind up throwing away thousands of dollars over the course of a year. When they should play aggressively, looking to hammer a big one-way exacta or betting against a bad favourite, they bet no more than they do ordinarily, or they play too many combinations and don't get the return they should.

"Men handicapping, it's crucial to not merely think who might win the race but whether this particular race can help you. If the race looks obvious (the crowd's 6/4 favourite looks like a 6/4 shot, their second choice at 5/2 looks about right, their third choice at 4/1 looks fair, too), you have nothing to bet. Absolutely nothing.

"Sure, you can bet, and maybe you'll win that race, but if you keep putting your money into races like this, you're going to lose in the long run. Guaranteed."

Barry goes on to offer some advice to those punters who really do want to win long term and not just on the one immediate race.

"If you're serious about winning, take a stand. If you like two horses equally and one is 2/1 and the other is 7/2,  then key the 7/2 shot in your double instead of using them both. Bet the exacta one way only. You have an
opinion ... NOW USE IT!

"You're going to be wrong sometimes, but so what? You never make real money in this game by betting everybody with everybody. You make it with scores, by being right occasionally. The other day, at Santa Anita (California), I had big numbers on a horse who had won four races in a row on dirt, but most of the crowd didn't care for his switch to turf, front-running style, and slight move up in company, and let him get off at 11/1.

"I made a huge bet on the horse and if I was right, I had a chance to make $15,000 on the race. The horse led to the straight and then faded. The crowd was right and I was wrong. Big deal.

"Usually the crowd is right. But when YOU'RE right, you want to be in a position to make some real money Ask any poker player."

It's Barry's belief that for all our betting lives we, the punters, have been overloaded with negative messages about gambling. This is what he has to say on this touchy subject:

"If you believe you can't win, you probably won't. And most people don't believe they can win. How many times have you heard that all horse bettors die broke?

"It's remarkable how the subconscious mind directs our will, as any nightclub hypnotist's performance will demonstrate. His subjects are awake until he tells them they are getting sleepy Suddenly, they do get sleepy, and they go along with just about anything the hypnotist tells them.

"I once saw a hypnotist suggest to a volunteer that the man would not be able to say the number seven, a few minutes later, he offered the man $1000 if he could tell him the number that comes between 6 and 8, but the man couldn't do it.

"If somebody gives us a negative message, we too often take it to heart. If you're giving yourself such negative  messages, change them.

"Try 'each day I'm getting better at managing my money', or 'I'm learning how to handicap maiden races'. At the very least, it will put some confidence into your subconscious mind."

Barry points out that because of the tote "takeout", or the bookmaker's edge, most punters lose. How much they lose varies greatly and depends on many factors, like how much they bet, how often they bet, how skilful they are as handicappers, how much luck they get, and other elements.

He says: "It's likely that in the long run, a player who masters the skills of handicapping and knows how to use handicapping's tools will outperform one who doesn't. The basic skill is to understand horses and racing.

Barry Meadow has written thousands upon thousands of words of advice on betting, and the philosophy of betting. What does it all mean? And how can you fell whether you're living in a fantasy world or not?

In a recent issue of his monthly newsletter, he published the comments of a poker-player, saying much of what he had to say was applicable to many thoroughbred handicappers.

In part, it said: "Ignorance is bliss, and I have seen an awful lot of blissful people gambling their hard-earned dollars into oblivion. If you try to explain the fads to these ignorant, blissful people, they will not believe you.

'They offer illogical, mathematically impossible explanations as to why they are exempt from the facts. If they do happen to hear some actual facts, you can bet they will probably find some way to discount them.

'They won't accept the facts because the facts contradict what they know. Or think they know. The facts aren't pretty. They provide no security blanket, no genuine hope, no relief."

Do you fit this picture? Are you loath to take advice, or reluctant to change the betting habits of a lifetime of losing betting?

If you are, perhaps it might be wise to take Barry Meadow's advice and read what this poker player had to say ... and then start looking anew at your betting approach.

"Tool mastery includes gathering the proper tools (such as past performances, trainer stats and workout reports) and using them to understand today's race. Then it becomes a matter of betting sensibly, and with discipline.

"In the long term, there's no room for false beliefs. The problem is that most people have short-term memories. They'll remember some angle they used to cash a big exacta, or another one than landed them a 14/1 winner. Their mistake is in thinking that much long-term value can come of this.

"Some bettors win for a while and then start losing. Often these punters believe that whatever they used was the reason they won, and that 'it just stopped working' was the reason they lost.

"More likely, their win was simply the result of fluctuations, the same fluctuations that happen when you flip coins and sometimes get 12 heads in a row. They have now regressed to the mean.. the losing mean. Their luck has evened out."

Another lesson punters must learn, says Barry, is to be prepared for things to go wrong, because they will and you can learn this and pay a hefty price, as he did. In his most recent (October) newsletter, Barry tells how he missed out on a big winning bet because of a combination of freak happenings.

"I had a play marked for the first at Del Mar," he says. "My horse's win and exacta prices were very close to the numbers I needed to bet, so I wanted to wait until the last second to call in my bet to be sure I was getting the numbers.

"As the horses approached the gate I checked the latest odds on the Internet. It was a GO. So I tried to call my betting service. My phone line was dead.

"Normally I have a cell phone at my desk for just such problems, or in case a customer calls me on the office phone right before post time. But I had gone to another town in the morning and had brought my cell phone with me. So it was out in the car."

By the time he got the cell phone from the car, the race had started. The horse won, and the exacta came in as well. Several thousand dollars in profits had disappeared for lack of a phone line.

NEXT MONTH: More from the Barry Meadow Portfolio.

By Richard Hartley Jr.