How would you like to watch the tote all day and bet for a place AND make a small amount of profit? This is the nub of the Dr Z Factor, an approach to betting created by a couple of American professors.

At first glance, it seems the perfect solution to the problem of making a profit at betting on the races but, like all slices of paradise, there's a serpent or two lurking.

Nick Mordin, the noted UK writer, brings up the Dr Z approach in his latest book, Winning Without Thinking (www.gamblingbooks.co.uk) and while discussion on the theory is not new, Mordin's review at least serves to revive some interest in what it's all about.

Mordin's attempt to actually translate theory into real-life practice makes for interesting reading. He found it difficult to actually make it all work, proving again that what seems easy on paper proves not so easy when it comes to putting down your cash.

Says Mordin: "The tote, thank heavens, is as dumb as the average player who bets with it. To win, you don't have to go toe to toe with a streetwise trader who's probably at least as smart as you are.

"To make money with a tote system, you've just got to be a few percentage points smarter than the next guy. This brings us neatly on to a tote-based betting system that makes winning as simple as staring at a TV screen or, to be more precise, a tote video monitor."

Mordin is talking about the Dr Z system, first revealed in the book Dr Z's Beat The Racetrack by Professors William Ziemba and Donald Husch (Wm Morrow publishers, New York).

As Mordin explains, the Dr Z system is based on a very simple premise: punters are better at estimating a horse's chance of winning than of placing. It follows, then, that when a horse's place odds are out of line with its win odds, profits are possible.

Mordin writes: "To give you an example, horses whose win odds are 2/1 reach the first three about two-thirds of the time. Therefore, if you can consistently obtain a place payout of better than 166 to a 100 stake for 2/1 shots, you are bound to come our ahead in the long run."

This sounds like a great idea, right? Well ... yes and no. The sheer awful task of battling with ever-changing tote dividends is one cruel barrier between the punter and a profit. How many times do you see the tote divvies on the monitors changing significantly in the last three minutes of betting? All the time, right?

Mordin at least decided to give the Dr Z system a go. He put himself to the task of seeing if a profit really could be made. His trial was conducted on the UK tote, which is a far inferior service to that which we have in Australia.

It handles small amounts of money compared to TABs here, so this was another element that Mordin had to deal with and try to overcome.

He writes: "My own results, as well as research by academics, suggest you actually only make 8 to 12 per cent profit from Dr Z's system, rather than the hypothetical 20 per cent that the payouts on the chart in my book suggest.

"This is partly because the odds tend to shift after you have made your bet and partly because your bet inevitably affects the market, reducing the odds.

"I always find it hard to suppress a smile when I think about Dr Z's system because it taught me something very few readers will believe ... winning can be boring. If winning money on the horses is better than sex, then Dr Z's system is a great advert for celibacy."

Mordin says it turns betting into an activity that even the most tedious accountant would find hard to enjoy. He then tells of his experience at the Doncaster racecourse in England, where he was doing a "book signing" to which almost nobody turned up.

After sitting at a desk with a large stack of books for a couple of hours, and feeling like a spare part, Mordin decided he shouldn't waste any more of the day's racing.

He started using the Dr Z system. That's when his problems began with implementation of the "great idea".

He explains: "I then began the task of scanning the odds shown on the screens, looking for discrepancies in the win and place dividends. The first bet I made turned out to be a mistake. It was on an odds-on shot that was paying a massive 1.60 for a place. I plunged something like 150 and smashed the dividend down to 1.30.

"I'd clearly bet too much and hurt the odds (British tote pools are very small). I won anyway (I think the horse finished 2nd) but clearly I had to take into account the effect my bet would have on the place dividends.

"Eventually, not being very good at maths, I hit on a crude solution. After playing five or six races, I found that if I limited my wager to 1 per cent of the total bet in the place pool, I wouldn't lower the payoff significantly.

"Dr Z himself later told me that I could safely raise this figure to about 3 per cent, but, as I say, I'm not very good at maths and didn't realise this."

Mordin says the day dragged on as he stood there staring at the tote monitors. The tote clerks began to look at him oddly, possibly because he won every time he bet but collected very small rewards.

"Ooh, you've won again have you dear?" one of them said to him derisively as he collected 78 pounds for an outlay of 60.

Says Mordin: "Being a stubborn so and so, I decided to stick to my guns and gave Dr Z's system a thorough test. I bet right up until the last race that day and returned to wager throughout the next day as well. By day me, the clerks had gotten used to my lunacy. They no longer looked wary as I approached their windows to bet but I could clearly see they were all thinking the same thought whenever I placed a wager.

"They'd listen to my bet, punch it up, then look hopefully up at me as if to say, 'Go on, now have a proper bet!' I never did. I waited for them to print off my boring place bet on the short-priced horse and walked off to resume my act of staring at the tote video screens."

By the end of the two days, Mordin had an aching back, a crick in his neck and a slight case of dehydration and starvation (he was worried about leaving the tote screens for a second to get food and drink in case he missed a system bet).

Finally, he added up his winnings and found that he had made 98 pounds betting Dr Z's system but his expenses wiped out all but around 60 pounds, so he had actually made 30 quid a day.

"I'd have earned more cooking burgers at McDonald's," he writes. "I joke about Dr Z's system. In reality it is one of the most important betting systems ever devised. All of the big Hong Kong and American betting syndicates have some version of it built into the computer programmes they use to analyse the races."

The great thing, he concludes, is that Dr Z's system provides immediate proof you can make money from horse-racing using a system. It doesn't even matter if you know nothing about the game.

By Martin Dowling

PRACTICAL PUNTING - JULY 2002