One of the great challenges for any punter is to decide when to back a favourite. Making the wrong choices can spell doom for your betting bank. Making the right choices will give you an edge that may just enable you to wind up in profit over a season.

As well as deciding not to back a favourite, you will often be called upon to decide when to actually back another horse against the public elect. The longer the price of your selection, the more you will be betting 'against the crowd'.

Professionals maintain, quite rightly, that only by calling it right and betting against the great mass of punters, will you be able to earn a dollar from racing betting.

By beating the crowd, you are beating the price. If your analysis is accurate, you will be able to define more often than not the occasions when a favourite is underpriced. At the same time, you will probably be in possession of knowledge that indicates your selection is over the odds. This is overlay betting, about which reams have been written, including hundreds of books!

Yet, average punters still find it hard to turn their backs on false favourites. They continue to blindly back horses at evens that are really 2/1 chances (or even more). The lure of the favourite, and being part of the betting crowd, is too much for a lot of punters.

Just a few rethinks can enable you to sharpen up your betting attack. Keep in mind certain key principles and you'll be well on the way to shrugging off the 'favourite at any price' monkey.

British professional Alan Potts, in his fine book Against The Crowd, makes a number of pertinent points about being a successful bettor. Here are a few:

  • " . . . The first key to make a profit in the market is to try always to take the best price offered. Beating the market means the difference between a fair living and a struggle, and the expense of going racing is easily justified."
  • "In recent seasons I have slowly increased the odds below which I will not bet, from a position of never betting odds-on, to my current rule of never betting below 2/1. With increasing experience, I'm likely to push this barrier higher in future."
  • "My strategy of seeking longer priced winners means that the average starting price of my selections is around 6/1. But the key to making a profit on these selections lies in obtaining a better price than that in the ring. If the horse is offered at 7/1 at some point in the betting, then by taking that price, a winning selection will mean that my gain is equal to a whole unit stakes. Using my average 300 (UK pounds) stake, my bet gains me 300 pounds profit greater than SP . . . "
  • "If, as a result of your form analysis, you can make a good argument for supporting a longshot, then you must make a bet. The key factor is that no bet on such a horse can be expected to fulfil the same exacting criteria you would apply to a 4/1 shot. There are bound to be ifs and buts about such a selection, otherwise it wouldn't be 25/1 (or 12/1, either)."
  • "Finding the value bets from amongst the tens of thousands of outsiders who run every year requires constant study of the form, and inexhaustible patience to wait for the right opportunity."

Potts makes some very valid points. I found his last comment illuminating. His approach on longshots is to mix them around with his orthodox day-to-day bets.

Over a few years, he expects the short-price bets to produce sufficient profits to at least cover all the stakes lost on longshot bets, leaving the successful longshot bets to provide pure profit.

His views on money management, and financial expectations, are just as useful for the average punter. Like other punters, Potts says, he started out using a percentage of his pocket money for his first ever bet, two shillings and sixpence eachway. He now bets at 300 pounds (about $800) and upwards.

He advises punters to think about (a) what are their profit expectations, (b) the number of bets they'll have, and (c) how many losers they'll be able to afford.

In his book, he says he aims to make 10,000 pounds profit a year on a total stake of 100,000 pounds. He adds: "My personal method is to operate mainly in a narrow band either side of my desired average. In practice, I stick to a minimum stake of 250 pounds, and a normal maximum of 400 pounds, which produces the right sort of total
turnover for me.

"I can and do exceed the maximum if circumstances are right, but these occasions are entirely to do with feel and confidence, rather than any plan that can be defined on paper."

Potts has lots more to say in Against The Crowd and I do suggest you buy a copy of the book from the publishers in Britain. It's a paperback of some 128 pages and although it is geared to UK racing, much of it is just as helpful for punters in other countries.

I began this article by talking about favourites, and the question of whether or not you should back them with your hard-earned money. Alan Potts gives us a good lead by explaining that he never backs a horse at less than 2/1.

Why not use this as a starting point where favourites are concerned? Eliminate all favourites which are under these odds. On the TAB, that means any favourite (indeed any runner) paying $3 or under. This will leave you with only a handful of favourites to consider, and all will be available at better than 2/1.

Many years ago, an American expert, James Mack, wrote about 'earning a living' from betting, and made some interesting observations. He stressed that a successful punter learns to become 'more selective' and confines his bets to a few outstanding horses, instead of trying to beat every race.

He added: "The more widespread and scattered your operations as a bettor, the greater becomes the margin for errors. Even the experts do better at their home tracks where they are better able to follow the formlines."

Mack has a moot point here because, in this day and age, punters do indeed spread themselves wide with their betting. How many punter pals do you know who restrict themselves to betting only on, say, Melbourne? Or Sydney only? Very few, I would say, if any.

The temptation to bet everywhere is greater than it's ever been. Of course, with TV coverage and video replays, the modern punter has a much better chance when betting at different venues because he is able to see as much as the locals.

Another US expert, with the pen name Roseben, summed it pretty neatly almost 50 years ago when he said: "The more a punter knows about racing, the more possible winners he can see in a race."

Roseben favoured multiple plays in the same race, betting according to the prices available. This is a method used down through the years, but one which requires very accurate selection-making.

Summing up, then, the punter should seriously consider NEVER betting below a certain price (perhaps the 2/1 suggested by Alan Potts), mixing his top bets with longshots, and perhaps restricting his betting to a few venues in his local area (Melbourne punters back Melbourne racing, Sydney punters back Sydney racing, etc.).

Remember always that the 'crowd' doesn't win overall. So, if you're a member of the crowd, you are very likely to lose. Bet sensibly against the crowd, on well researched selections at value prices, and you stand a good chance of coming out a winner.

AGAINST THE CROWD by Alan Potts (Aesculus Press, PO Box 10, Oswestry, Shropshire, SY10, 7QR, United Kingdom).

By Philip Roy