Over the years I've met a lot of great characters on racetracks. Not so many in recent years, though. Much of the colour seems to have drained from racing in that respect. But go back 10, 15, 20 years or more and the 'characters' were plentiful.

Some were shrewd judges as well as being eccentric human beings. My old dad told me about a couple of characters on the Sydney tracks of 40 and 50 years ago who always wore bowler hats. When they were 'hot' on the punt, fellow racegoers would follow them all around the betting ring, copying their bets.

'Notebook' Nobby was one of the funniest racetrack characters I've met. He's no longer active, though I know he keeps tabs on racing from the small cottage he calls home in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran.

I happened to visit him there a while back and it was no surprise to find his kitchen table covered in Sportsman formguides and a pile of notebooks. Even in retirement, Nobby hasn't given up his prized notebooks.

He was at his peak in the early '80s. He was then in his early sixties and, when I met him, was running about as hot as you can get on a racetrack. I know several bookmakers who greatly respected his judgement. It was a lesson they'd paid for with their money.

Nobby was forever clutching notebooks. Not one, but several. Each contained different things. One was a notebook about jockeys, another about trainers, and the third was about the horses.

Nobby was a furious note-taker. There was no rest for him at a race meeting. While normal racegoers paused for breath between races, Nobby would be madly taking notes. His recall on races was phenomenal.

He would write down EVERYTHING he'd seen in a race. He wrote down betting fluctuations, he would even note who spoke to what jockeys in the mounting yard. If anyone tipped him a horse, or passed on information, Nobby would diligently enter the details in a notebook.

The notes, he told me, were the secret of his success. Without them he could never have been successful at betting.

"My notebooks were precious to me," he said. "They gave me the edge over the other punters. For them, information went in and went out. With me, it was safe for another time. I was a human computer."

What Nobby says, of course, is absolutely true. With his copious note-taking, he was acting much like computers act for us today. He was storing information in the old fashioned way.

Nowadays, computers can do the same job much better. But 'Notebook' Nobby's style is a lesson for us, especially those who decline to be part of the computer revolution. The lesson is that we must REMEMBER things. We must get 'one up' on our fellow punters.

The keeping of some form of records is one crucial way we can do that. How many times have you seen something during a race and then forgotten about it, only to recall it when a winner lobs and you realise it was the horse you meant to jot down?

Nobby never suffered from such punting pain because there was never a chance that he'd forget anything he saw or heard at the racetrack.

He was good with ratings, too. Especially 2yo's. He would rate the 'babies' on winning lengths, relative time and weight, and had a schedule of 'projected improvement' for winners and placegetters. As a result, his money was always on a 2yo with winning form and possessing enough pace to register a winning time.

Nobby was adamant that weight played only a minor role in 2yo races up to 1100m. From that point it came into focus more clearly but was still not a major point even over 1200m.

Nobby's favourite system, which he played for the last few years of his betting life at the track, centred around backing his selections in a particular way. I have seen various versions of it over the years and it certainly makes some sense.


  1. First, make your selection. Take into account as many form factors as you can. Consider any notebook jottings relating to the race. Always be sure your final selection and your backup selection are soundly supported by rational argument.
  2. If your top selection is 5/2 or better, bet 2 units a win. Put a ‘saver’ 1 unit on your second selection, provided it is at a bigger price than the first selection. If there is no bet on the second selection, put the extra unit on the top selection, making it a 3-unit bet (a unit can be any amount you like, from $1 upwards).
  3. If your top selection is at 2/1 or 9/4, bet 3 units a win. If your second selection is at 3/1 or longer, bet 1 unit a win on it. If it is at a shorter price than your top selection, no bet on it. The bet on the top selection remains at 3 units.
  4. If your top selection is at 7/4 or lower, no bet on the race. Nobby says he made worthwhile profits using this approach. He confined his betting to three or four races a day, sometimes even fewer.

"Most of my good selections were in the 2/1 to 4/1 range," says Nobby "I had a solid strike rate, and I did well because the structure of my staking didn't allow things to get out of hand but at the same time it wasn't overconservative.

"It was also an enjoyable way to bet. I was betting then in units of $50, so when I had a decent bet I was putting on $150 on the 2/1 and 9/4 chances and maybe another $50 on the second pick."

What Nobby had to wrestle with was the age-old question of whether to have a bet on the second selection at all. He worked out that in three separate years he would have been better off Putting the money scheduled for the second pick on the first selection. But in other years, it panned out the other way; the second pick helped out.

The same problem is faced by punters who bet eachway. Or those who take savers. Is it better to bet all-out for the win or to bet eachway? I've known many punters who never realised they could make more by betting straight-out for the win than by playing safe and betting eachway.

Any punters serious about winning should check back on their results at eachway to see if they could have won more by using the place component of the bet for an extra win investment.

Example: You bet a horse at 4/1 eachway. The return is $5 for the win and $2 for the place. A bet of $2 returns you $7. The same bet for $2 win returns you $10.

'Notebook' Nobby worked on a multiple-bets approach for some years. He eventually gave it away when he felt the bookies' odds were being so squeezed that the value was not there any longer.

"I reckon I've tried just about every form of staking there is," Nobby told me. "Some of what I did was disastrous.  But I kept on poking around, and then I started to get it right.

"I learned all about unwise betting, like betting every race on the card. I was interested in every race all right but only for the purposes of making notes about what I'd seen. You can't beat your own eyes.

"In those days we didn't have TV screens and video replays - and I'm talking now about the early 50s, that era - and you just got one look at a race and that was that, unless you happened to catch a glimpse on the cinema newsreel!

"Punters have never had it so good as they do these days and yet I still hear them complain. I wish I was 30 years younger; I'd be right in amongst the action.

"I still believe you have to be at the track, with good bookies around, to be able to make your racing pay. If you can't win under those circumstances, with a choice between the bookies and the tote, you'll never win.

"I used to play a method which I reckon is still valid today. I'd pick out three selections and when I found a race where all three were 5/2 or better, I'd whack a unit on each for the win. It meant I couldn't lose unless all three missed out and I can tell you that wasn't very often.

"If the shortest-priced of the three selections was around 6/4 to 2 / 1, I put a double bet on it and a unit on the other two. I didn't go shorter than 6/4, though some of my mates did. If their top pick was under 6/4 they'd put three units on it and a unit on the other two.

"I always felt that 6/4 was short enough for me. I didn't want to be strangling a quid from the game."

Nobby can't get to the racetracks these days. He says he's too old and a day hobbling around the betting ring would probably kill him off. But he does still bet a lot from home.

He has an account with a bookie via the telephone betting, he has accounts in three State TABs and he has had cable put in for the SKY service.

"I'll be in heaven," he told me. "I'll be sitting there taking notes all day from every race meeting. You just watch me. I'll knock up backing winners with the SKY service. I mean, punters have never experienced anything like it, have they? Every race can be watched and replayed time after time.

"My notebooks are going to be filled to overflowing."

Nobby's parting advice to younger punters is to restrict their betting to a few races a day, and to work as hard as they can on sorting out the form. And, naturally, he advises them to buy a notebook and take it with them to the races, or keep it at their side when they're watching the races on TV.

“Write down everything you see, what you feel, about every race,” he says. “It might seem like a tiresome task but it will all pay off. Soon enough, your notes will lead you to a winner that everyone else ignores.

“But you'll have it because you were sensible enough to make some notes about it.” 

By Richard Hartley Jnr