Do you dream of the life of a professional punter? Must be great, eh? Toffing yourself up for a race meeting, wads of notes in your wallet, the thrill of collecting thousands of dollars, champagne corks popping, living the good life in luxury hotels ...

It sounds wonderful, and I guess it's most people's romantic view of what it means to make your living by betting on racehorses. Like so many things in life, the reality doesn't match the imagination.

Talk to professional punters and, if they're honest, they'll tell you of a life of hard work, of bitter experiences, of daily grind, of frustration and self-doubt, and dramatic highs and lows.

"There's not a lot of glamour," says a pal of mine, who has managed to survive on making $50,000 a year profit for the last few years. "I work harder at this than at any other job I've had."

The rewards, as you can see, are not so great in this chap's case. A wage of $1000 a week (not guaranteed!) isn't much these days. But my mate hates the thought of holding down an ordinary job again, so he soldiers on, always trying to lift his profit level.

Our longtime American contributor Barry Meadow is a man who bets seriously, and he's often asked about his time commitment, especially in view of the fact that he not only bets a lot but he also produces a monthly newsletter, and a US ratings service.

"It would be nice to be able to press a couple of computer buttons and wind up with a gazillion successful bets at nationwide tracks, but it doesn't work that way," says Barry. "Playing the horses seriously, with an attempt to win money longterm, takes time and effort. Boy, it sure would be nice if that wasn't the case.

"Whether you play one track or a dozen, you're going to have to put in time to make this work. Maybe all your time."

Barry's day goes as follows:

7-7.15am: Review websites with industry news, check racing message boards and emails, download results charts for the previous day's meetings.

7.15-7.45: Watch replays from southern Californian tracks.

7.45-8.15: Download and print past-performances, get the morning odds, then enter my ratings for each horse.

8.15-9.15: Read track workout reports, trainer data, and other information, including my own notes from my database, then handicap the cards. Prepare the possible-bets sheet.

9.15-9.45: Check bookmakers' websites for possible match-play bets, scan nationwide tracks for possible quinellas, and read racing magazines or books.

9.45-11.45: Revise ratings for horses who have raced within the past week.

11.45-12.15: Lunch break.

12.15-12.30: Check late scratchings, and track conditions, and make handicapping adjustments as necessary. Start checking the "pools" for the first race.

12.30-5: Watch races via Internet or TV. See if any biases appear to be developing. Monitor the pools, comparing a horse's odds in the exacta and the double with its win price, looking for action horses, checking the place pools for overlays, etc. Place bets, via Net or phone.

5-5.15: Enter the day's bets in the computer, along with the day's accounting.

Barry says that somewhere during the day or night he also needs to find time to work on his newsletter, pack book orders, answer queries, update his website, drive to the post office, submit credit card orders, etc.

And, he admits, it's a bad idea to get behind!

Most professionals, of course, don't do publishing as another arm of their income-producing work. They bet solely for a living.

The English professional Alan Potts is a classic example of a fulltime bettor who has done "the hard yards" and who now has his approach completely under control. Alan began his pro betting when video replays and computerised form was just a dream for the future.

He now uses video replays a lot, though he's not as keen on computers.

He says: "Whereas 20 years ago, mainstream TV provided the only pictures of racing, and home recording was impossible for the man in the street, I am now able to watch, record and rewatch around 90 per cent of the races run each year.

"The written information has also gained in detail, with press and form organisations able to take advantage of race pictures to provide more detailed reports than were ever possible when everything had to be absorbed from a single live viewing.

"The challenge for the professional punter is to sift all this information and to place his own interpretation on it, in order to maintain an edge over his source of income."

In the pro punter fantasies that we hold, I guess many of us imagine that a pro will have a string of stable contacts to provide so-called inside information. Well, some professionals do. Most don't.

The reason is simple: Who wants to give information to a punter who is going to run off and knock off the price?

Alan Potts says: "I personally hold information from stable staff and gallops watchers in low esteem. From my own personal involvement as an owner, I'm well aware that the views of stable staff on the horses in their care are likely to be as subjective as those of a mother commenting on her children.

"My preferred area of operations is one in which inside information is of little use, since I almost never bet on 2yo maiden races, or on un-raced maidens at 3 years. I prefer to stick to betting on what I have seen for myself, rather than betting on what someone else tells me they have seen.

Some professionals will get only on short-priced specials. Professionals like Alan Potts adopt a different approach in that they are always looking for longer-priced winners.

Says Potts: "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 stake.

Using my average 300 (pounds) stake, my bet gains me 300 pounds profit greater than Starting Price."

Steve Ahern, an English professional who made a fortune from racing in the 1950s and '60s, quit with over a million pounds in the bank. He fought a long battle with himself over backing odds-on chances. Eventually, he beat the compulsion to be "in the red" but before doing it he almost wiped himself out financially.

Ahern says: "Never bet odds-on. This is my advice to any punter. This advice could change the habits of the nation and ruin the bookmaking profession, because one of the greatest misconceptions the English public labours under is that to make backing pay you have to take evens and odds-on prices.

"Nothing could be further from the truth. Never do it. This is the best tip I can possibly give. It's my firm conviction that the man who regularly bets odds-on, or evens, will inevitably go home one day with no boots on.

"I know this from hard practical experience. There is more reason for an odds-on horse to go astray than most any other horse. Remember this: The bookie must lay the favourite, or the odds-on chance. It's the foundation of his book, and one of the fundamental principles he must observe.

"He loves the public for its faith in favourites, especially those in the red. It must therefore be obvious, seeing as to him you are the enemy, that it's the last thing in the world you should do.

"In the autumn of 1934, when I was 27, I met with one of my greatest disasters, which subsequently proved a tremendous asset in my experience. I had built up a small bank to a substantial sum and threw it away.

"I went to Ascot. Three or four odds-on chances looked like certainties. I backed them heavily, making a terrific dent in my bank balance and worrying myself to death, Suddenly, I began to wonder if this was value for money at all, however good the horses were.

"If I won it didn't take me far in front. If the horse got beaten I not only lost my money but my judgement was jeopardised through fear setting in, and this was much more serious. I made a vow, which I have mainly kept ever since, not to bet on an odds-on chance again."

Ahern was a man of great discipline. He began studying the formguide at age 14 and never gave up on it. Friends say he studied the formguide until he almost knew it by heart.

The late Walter Mitchell always warned his fellow punters about diving in on odds-on chances.

"You only bet odds-on when there is no second best," he said, "and that doesn't happen very often. Even then it can be dangerous."

Mitchell made the following point: Three horses stand out at a meeting. Each of them is 2/1 ON. You decide to bet $20 on each. If one wins, you lose $30, or 50 per cent of your outlay.

If two of them win, you are square. To show a profit, all three must WIN. And how many times can you hit three from three?

In next month's June issue of Practical Punting Monthly, we'll bring you more ideas from professional punters who tell about their lifestyle, their betting approaches and their personal dos and don'ts in betting.

By Richard Hartley Jnr