In all the year’s I’ve been betting I have never found two punters who think alike when it comes to analysing and dissecting form.

Each person seems to have his or her own “starting point”, whether it be kicking off with course and distance winners, or the favourites, or the topweights and so on. And after that, their form study can go zig-zagging all over the place.

I think there is much to be said for the old “ticks” approach, whereby you draw together 10 or a dozen pertinent questions and then proceed to go through the form of each runner, allotting ticks for the positive answers.

At the end of it, you emerge with a pretty clear idea of which of the runners have the best chances, or SHOULD have the best chances.

The tally of ticks tells you who they are. No, it’s not the be-all and end-all but it can be very useful if you find your form analysis is basically heading nowhere and taking you down a poor fiscal path!

Can it do any worse? Ask any expert, or any punter come to that, and they will give you cogent reasons why they think their approach to form is the best. Gordon Pine, the noted US handicapper, has firm views on how he goes about the business and his views were recently outlined on the Netcapper website.

Here’s what he had to say:

I know that one of the biggest pleasures I get when handicapping is to take the coloured pens (coloured pens are an infallible sign of a good handicapper!) and cross out certain horses; obliterate them from consideration.

Handicapping has so many grey areas that a mechanical method of contender elimination has a liberating sense of decisiveness. There are a lot of factors you can use to eliminate horses. Most contender-selection schemes concentrate on eliminating horses which figure to have low win percentages.

However, your focus should be on types of horses that have historically generated a low Return On Investment (ROI), not just horses with a small chance of winning. Random win betting in thoroughbred races will generate an ROI of about .78c. In other words, you’ll get 78 cents back for each dollar wagered, or a loss of about 22 cents per dollar wagered.

The way I see it, the point of contender selection is to throw out the horses whose ROI is likely to be significantly lower than that. If you can throw out a few horses whose ROI is likely to be .60c or lower, it means you’re tilting the odds in your favour. The remaining contenders, as a group, will have an ROI above the random .78c range. Your goal should be to bring your contenders into the .85c to .90c and over range before you even worry about which horse you’re going to bet. Then you’re at least within spitting distance of making a profit.

Look through the literature of thoroughbred handicapping for studies that point out negative ROI situations which you can use to eliminate horses. Good sources include William Quirin’s books, Michael Nunamaker, or Jim Mazur’s track-specific studies. Contender elimination should be a two-step process.

First, you tentatively cross out the bad apples. Next, you “uneliminate” some of those horses by checking for certain positives. The trick is to have a couple of coloured pens, one for tentative eliminations (many handicapping sophisticates prefer orange) and one for final eliminations (red).

Again, the first step is to tentatively eliminate horses using various criteria based on low ROI. Below are some of my favourite eliminations. There are plenty more out there, but I recommend you only use those that are tested, either by you or someone you trust, and show an ROI of .60 or less: Horse with a morning line (pre-post market) of 30/1 or higher.

In one study of over 50,000 horses of all odds ranges, the horses with morning lines of 30/1 or higher had an ROI of .24 (loss of 76 cents per dollar wagered). A horse with track odds of 20/1 or higher (.44 ROI). A horse has track odds of 10/1 or higher at 5 minute mark, odds increase by two or more notches before post-time (about .55 ROI). A horse coming off 45+ day layoff (.56 ROI). A horse coming off 30+ day layoff, going up in class (.12 ROI). No more than one of the last six races were at this general distance (.42 ROI). No in-the-money finishes in the last six races (.33 ROI). A horse who has not had odds less than 5/1 in the last six races (.54 ROI). Favourite today, has a layoff of 45+ days between the last and the second-to-last race (.57 ROI).

Ron Ambrose used to say that positives outweigh negatives, and it’s very true. Therefore, the next step is to redeem some of the tentative non-contenders because of some positive sign or signs. For longshots of 9/1 or greater, you only require one positive sign to bring the horse back into the fold. Winning longshots almost always look bad on paper and that’s why they are longshots.

But when you go back and look at them, there’s usually at least one positive sign that the horse had a shot, a sign that you don’t see in most longshots. I can’t list all the possibilities, but they might include: Horse gets back jockey who has won on it before. High-percentage trainer. Unusually fast trackwork (note: If you can find the details in Australia). Good early speed in the last race which is atypical for this horse. A pattern of some kind reoccurs today which matches the horse’s last victory. Layoff horse who has won off the break before. Be a little more skeptical about un-eliminating lower odds horses (8/1 or less). You get your edge by tossing these puppies. You’re going to be wrong sometimes, but you’re dealing with long-term probabilities, so it should help you in the long run not to consider these horses.

If you see reason to redeem one of these low-odds tentative eliminations, then do so. Reasons could include: A definite ability edge over the rest of the field. Weak competition, so you think the horse is likely to win despite its negatives. A track bias that favours the horse. A positive trainer specialty. A good trainer/jockey combination.

Okay, you’ve eliminated the money-sucking non-contenders. Now it’s time to handicap your contenders. It’ll be a much easier job without the money-suckers to confuse the issue. Remember, these horses will win from time to time, but, as long as you learn to un-eliminate the exceptions to the low ROI elimination rules, they form a group of poor bets which it can only behoove you to avoid. Hopefully, your potential ROI is in the .85 to .90 range or higher as you start handicapping your contenders. It’s a lot easier to go from there to profitability.

Gordon Pine’s words make a lot of sense. He is an expert, of course, on American racing but that doesn’t mean that his views have no relevance here in Australia and New Zealand, because they do. Very much so. Form analysis is a universal thing. It cuts across international boundaries.

All said and done, as punters we need to carry out much the same tasks in much the same way as our fellow bettors all over the world. So take what Gordon Pine has to say into serious account. Try his ideas out for yourself and see how they work. I’m sure their relevance to our conditions will soon be clearly evident.

We all need to adopt an approach of our own to make form analysis worthwhile. We don’t have to slavishly copy anyone else.

You can use bits of advice from all sorts of people, including guys like Gordon in America and, say, Alan Potts or Nick Mordin in the UK. Work out what best does the trick for you. It’s a learning process and we all need all the help we can muster.

By Philip Roy