Over the years, the stories of many professional punters have been told. Most of these amazing success stories have come from the United States, where bettors in years gone by were more fearless than the watered-down track followers of the current era.

There were many pro's in the US, and Australia, who adopted an approach of 'stealing' money. They waited for horses which they considered were certainties to run a place and they were happy with whatever edge they could obtain.

I know one or two in Sydney who follow that route even today. One of them told me: "I don't care if I only get 10 cents back in the dollar. If it's safe money I'll take it."

Chicago O'Brien, one of the most famous of the old-time professionals in America, coined the unforgettable line, "Pick 'em to win, play 'em to place," and for much of his betting life he followed his own advice. But he wasn't always a place-only bettor (remembering that in the US 'place' means only lst/2nd, and does not include 3rd, as we do).

O'Brien was one of the great form students of his time. He made an intensive study of all aspects of form and also made contacts inside the stables which enabled him to 'top off' his form decisions.

The wild punter was admired for his discipline. He would allow race after race to pass without making a bet but when he came to a race in which he considered one of the runners to be a certainty, he would bet big.

In the first part of his career, he bet for a win. Then, in a dramatic mid-career switch, he turned to place betting. At the time he wrote: "In racing, there is no such thing as a certainty, though I try to bet on the horses I feel deserve that tag. But I'm only too aware that a horse can be tried as a good thing but things that happen during a race can knock big holes in the pre-race theories.

  • Is there still room for the place?

"A bump, a check, a blocked run or being forced wide on the turn can all mean the difference between victory and defeat. I have seen all these things happen to standout propositions which, as a result, have lost by inches instead of winning by many lengths.

"In my early days of racing, one thing struck me and when it did I struck oil. These in-the-race incidents would cause the certainty to lose but not miss the place. If a horse was a worthwhile standout he would invariably finish 2nd even though he may have been robbed of first position.

"In those days I did what all handicappers should do. I kept a turf library and I used it to compile record sheets. I started investigating the performances of horses which those on the 'inside' had declared as unbeatable.

"I discovered this amazing fact: My list showed 127 such horses, of which 52 won but the prices were mostly short and a flat-stake win bet showed a loss of 16 units. Then I considered the place angle. Of the same 127 horses, there were the 52 winners plus another 63 which finished 2nd, and of these a total of 48 were considered unlucky.

"A player backing each horse for a place would have reaped a profit of 36.5 units. That discovery gave me something to think about. For years I'd been putting down my money on the nose and I could think of hundreds of times in which I had won or lost in close finishes.

"It made me realise my blood pressure would have been much better had my bets always been for the place - and my bank balance would have looked far rosier. So I learned a valuable lesson, one that stood the test of time for the rest of my betting life.

"If you are in the racing business, be business-like. It's much better business to pick up small profits on gilt-edged securities than try to gamble in the hope of big returns. The moment I quickened onto this system I quit betting, except for an odd hit or two, for a year. In that time I just kept up my form charts and continued to probe the place angle.

"However, I did make a lot of 'make-believe bets for the place, and looking at the credit column in my book of make-believe bets proved to me just what a sucker I'd been in the past. I resolved then to never again bet on a horse's nose, not even if it was a champion staker against a no-hoper at level weights.

"From then on, until I said goodbye to professional gambling, I bet in only one way. I waited for the good things, the horses my judgement told me were certain to win, and then I played them for the place."

Chicago O'Brien's story, then, contains no wild theories. He just used his personal experience to specialise in place betting. He made his money from it. He believed he had done the right thing.

But can it be done today? Is there enough value left in the pools to make the hotpots pay off? Well, no doubt, people will be able to prove that place betting cannot pay, that the stats don't add up at level stakes.

The thing about level stakes is that few gambling methods, if any, can measure up year after year. It's what you do in a money management sense with your place selections that is going to determine if you make profits or not.

You have to look for value for the place just as you look for it betting for the win. Some horses are at poor place value with the bookies and the tote. Others can provide fruitful pickings.

You can use a staking plan to bet for the place, provided you seriously reduce your bets to hot standouts, not just any horse in any race. You must be prepared to take short odds. Obviously, if a horse is a deadset standout you are not going to be the only one to spot it!

Place staking plans are always controversial and I guess the one I am floating now will not be the exception. There will be varying views on its efficacy.

The staking plan, which I call The Cycle, is easy to operate. You decide on the size of the units you are going to bet (i.e. 1 unit could equal $1 or $5 or $10 or $100, etc.). Let's say you decide on $5 units.

Your first bet is double the size of that unit, $10. You remain on this bet until you strike a placegetter. You then increase your next bet by your nominated unit ($5) and you do this every time you strike a placegetter. You operate the plan in series, with a maximum six bets in each.

Let's look at a series of six bets, just to give you an example:

Your first bet is $10. It loses. The next bet is $10 again. The horse runs, say, 2nd and pays $1.50. You get back a total of $15. Your next bet is $15. Let's say it also gets a place at, say, $1.40. Your return is $21. You now have your fourth bet at $20. Let's say it was unplaced. Your fifth bet remains at $20. Let's say it gets into the placings at $1.50. Your return is $30. Now on the final bet your stake is $25. Let's assume the selection runs a place at $1.20 only. That's a return of $30.

That sixth bet ends the series. Of course, it's up to you whether you work in a series of six bets or more.

You might feel happier using a string of 10 selections.

In the above case the bets have been:$10,$10,$15,$20,$20,$25,a total bet of $95. The returns were $15, $21, $30, $30. The series has turned out at almost dead level; in fact, a $1 profit for you. But it gives you an idea of what can be done. That sixth bet might well have been a $1.60 divvie? In which case your profit would have been upped by another $10.

A $16 flat bet on each of the six selections would have returned you $89, a loss of $6. So the staking plan was able to turn a level stakes loss into a profit - not much of a profit but a result that was $7 better overall.

The above example uses a strike rate of four placers from six bets, or 66.6 per cent. If you are aiming to shoot for super hotpot standouts, you would be looking to make the hits five from six.

You might care to consider a plan put forward by the late R. W. Wood, a UK writer from the 1940s and 1950s. Once again, consider only those runners you feel are solid place bets. Only, with this plan, you are trying to avoid really low dividends.

The rules of The Wood Plan are as follows:

  1. Bet only on races in which there are 8, 9, 10, or 11 runners.
  2. The system selection is the first favourite EXCEPT when the pre-post price is less than 2/1 (that is 15/8 or under). If the pre-post price is less than 2/1, then the second-fav becomes the selection.
  3. You bet in any race that fits the runners' rule, providing such race is on a city track, or is an Open or Welter handicap on a country or provincial track.
  4. Bet in 1 unit stakes (a unit can be any amount you like). After 10 bets, assess your situation. If your bank stands at a profit of 10 units or more, you raise your level stakes for the next set of 10 bets to 1.5 units. If you are making a loss after 10 bets, remain at the 1 unit level.

By Jon Hudson