The legendary Australian professional punter Don Scott led the way towards the 'value revolution, as he called it, with the publication of his successful books, beginning with Winning in 1978, and in these volumes Don paid respectful homage to another professional punter, the American called Pittsburgh Phil.

The life story of Pittsburgh Phil and his racetrack theories are documented in a slim volume called Racing Maximis And Methods of Pittsburgh Phil (Cole, 1908). The gloom merchants of today might well cast aspersions on the views of an American punter of the late 1800s, and question their relevance to punters
over 100 years later in Australia.

This may be a too-hasty judgment of what Phil was all about. Let's first venture into the thoughts of this quite remarkable punter and then decide on his worth, or otherwise, to today's computer driven punters.

In the very first paragraph of the very first chapter Phil lays it on the line when he asserts that "playing the  races appears to be the one business in which men believe they can succeed without special study,  special talent or special exertion" and he laments that the same men know that a similar approach in  business mean failure.

When discussing winning punters, he points out that they are the characters we must analyse and whose  methods we must study".

Phil asks: "What do the form players and successful handicappers know about horses?"

To which he answers that "they know the capabilities of every good horse in training" and have an  "accurate idea of what they will do under all circumstances".

Phil says the true professionals know all about a horse's disposition, its habits, the weather that suits it, the distances that suit it and what weight the horse will carry successfully.

They also know the strengths and weaknesses of jockeys, what they can and cannot do.

The professionals, he adds, are close observers of what goes on in the betting ring.

If we digest all these thoughts it becomes fairly obvious that Phil is suggesting some sort of record be kept  about the good horses, listing their likes and dislikes (a sort of personal form sheet) and he also  seems to be proposing that the punter forms a private 'stable' of horses to follow when he states that after  a horse not previously considered worthy of consideration suddenly improves, "he is added to the list of representative horses and is thereafter considered".

Phil takes things a step further when a main contender is beaten by making it his business to try to "locate the trouble (with the run) and record it for the future". Once again then, the old-timer is intimating the need for written comments which today can be supplemented by studying video replays, a luxury he never had.

Later in the book he adds: "I won I many wagers through studying the disposition of horses on certain tracks. There are horses that like the shape of some tracks and there are many that cannot make sharp turns while others are exceedingly I nimble."

Surely, Phil must have had a crystal ball! He could well have been talking about Chief De Beers, who won more than 20 races at Doomben yet couldn't win at Eagle Farm on the opposite side of the highway where  he was trained.

The strict keeping of records of the better horses would soon start to display each horse's racing traits. Top advice then and still top advice now.

I am assuming, by this stage, you are beginning to form an opinion about this printer. Remember, he was putting all his thoughts together many decades ago, when TV and films of races were unavailable, and computers were, well, fantasy stuff, if anyone could ever have conceived anything like them.

Phil was a devout mounting yard 'inspector' of physical fitness, as evidenced by his statement that it's  impossible to overestimate the value of the ability to accurately assess the condition of a thoroughbred.

"It's the twin sister of handicapping and more important because what may appear right on paper is very,  very often wrong in the paddock," wrote Phil.

Unfortunately, of course, most punters cannot be at the track to verify Phil's contention, so other methods need to be employed, such as not backing first-uppers or requiring a run to be no further back than X  number of days to ensure a level of fitness for the current race.

Attention to this vital aspect of fitness was of paramount importance to Phil and once again, we can say  that nothing has changed in that respect in the modern era.

On the issue of jockeys, Pittsburgh Phil was adamant there were some who were timid and who rode  much better on the outside than in the middle of a bunch. Though they were "in a minority", it was for the  punter to find out who they were and to classify them for future consideration.

He added an unusual extra when he said that he had discovered that some jockeys excelled on heavy tracks.

As thinking readers, you should contemplate for a second or two and consider the ground we have covered so far, and I might add I have not gone past Chapter 2 of Phil's book.

Phil, quite simply, asserts that we punters need to consider good class and FIT horses that we have  THOROUGHLY studied, and which are trained by people whose winning methods we have also  THOROUGHLY studied. As well, they should be ridden by good jockeys.

Naturally, Phil was a betting man and it was in this area where Don Scott, I suspect, first developed his  pricing methodologies, especially when we read what Phil had to say about betting: "I figure and handicap  those horses that have a winning chance. I then fix the odds that appear to me to be legitimate quotations. Possibly, one is 8/5, another at 3/1 and so on down the list.

"I always invested much heavier when I believed I was getting a better price than I had quoted in my own  mind against a certain horse." That sounds a lot like Don Scott's 'betting to chances' and the punishment  of overs, doesn't it? 

Phil was on the mark, too, with his approach to money management. The financing of your money, he said,  as the high road to success. The punter must know when to put down a heavy wager on an almost  sure winner and when to steer clear of a difficult race. 

Phil raises the issue of fitness again and again throughout the book and he summarises the punt when  he says: "Picking the winner of a race rests entirely upon the ability to tell when a horse is in good condition and when he is not. Is he saying beware of first-up runs? I think he is. Is he saying beware of horses  racing second-up? Debatable, but why not play safe and leave them out if you are not sure?

I'm convinced that he would have at least put a huge question mark against the contender's name and  priced it accordingly.

Pittsburgh Phil has been credited with many immortal racetrack sayings and they are all listed in the last few pages. I doubt if there's one better than, "Show me a man who can class horses correctly and I will  show you the man who can win all the money he wants and lie needs only a dollar to start".

For those readers who have maybe only vaguely heard the name of George E. Pittsburgh Phill Smith, prior  to this article, I hope I've initiated an interest and an appreciation of a punter who was well ahead of his time.

By Roman Koz