Last month we left off at the point where I was raving (again) about the Graham Swift novel, Last Orders.

It's the only novel I can ever remember in which the author really seems to understand what is going on inside a punter's head.

I include people like Dick Francis when I say that most people who write about racing are only able to speak from their own viewpoint when it comes to punters.

I can tell you that one of the most difficult things is to try to get inside somebody else's head. I dare say that Dr Clive knows a lot more about that than we do. Indeed he co-wrote his own guide to betting some years ago.

In Last Orders, the character who captures our attention is Ray, whose only profession has ever been racehorse investment (betting). He has never, to coin a phrase, "held down a steady job". He is highly selective in his betting and he will go for a considerable period of time without making any investments at all. But when he does have a go, it's a big go. In this particular book (and in the movie, which is tops), an enormous amount hinges on his getting a bet right. They call him Raysy. The name suits. And he is just such a nice guy. I am looking at the paperback edition, page 202. Here are the rules according to Ray:

  1. It's not the wins, it's the value.
  2. It's not the betting, it's knowing when not to.
  3. It's not the nags, it's the other punters.
  4. Old horses don't do new tricks. (5) Always look at the ears, and keep your own twitched.
  5. Never bet shorter than three to one.
  6. Never bet more than 5 per cent of your kitty, except about five times in your life.
  7. You can blow all the rules if you're Lucky.

I don't know about that last bit, do you? I notice that he even gives "Lucky" a capital letter. It's almost as though he is bagging himself, and then you suddenly realise that the man is a genuine punter, just like you and me: we are investing punters, we're not gamblers, but we know that there will be those few times in your life when you get lucky because you absolutely know how a race is going to pan out.

It's a weird sensation, and after you've had it a couple of times you find yourself thinking on a new plane, realising that there is the element of luck; but there is no way on earth that you are going to harness it.

Am I being a little too much of the philosopher here? Maybe so, but it's how I see racing investment. There are days, maybe four or five of them each year, where you will make most of your money. And yet these days will not necessarily be any different, so far as your selecting and betting is concerned, from the other 360+ days. Somehow the wheels all fall into place and the machine works beautifully.

That's what Raysy is getting at with rule 8. There will be a time. But of course if you are not lucky on the occasion when you blow the rules, well that's another story.

It's not the wins, it's the value. Whatever value means individual investor, it has to be what his entire approach is centred on. And knowing when to bet is no more important, indeed perhaps less important, than knowing when not to! Not betting is about as hard as it gets in this game.

Many of you have put yourselves through exercises that I have recommended over the years to practise this art. One of the most popular has been to find some time (a wedding or a christening, or a shopping expedition) when you are going to be unable to have any contact with a Saturday race program. You do all your analysis, you make all your notes on your formguide and in your diary, but you do not bet.

On the Sunday morning you either watch the replays (at the moment you can record them overnight) or you get the Sunday papers and then you have a thorough look at how you'd have gone. The most difficult thing to cope with is if you'd have scored a few good winners, or worse still, have been successful with an exotic bet. That's life. That's how it goes.

But frankly, statistically speaking, your exotic bets will lose much more frequently than they are successful. If that is not so, then you are reading this whilst sitting in a deck chair in Hawaii. If you can be that successful, you don't need me.

And it's not the nags, it's the other punters. They are what you are up against. How many times have we discussed this? Yet here it is in this wonderful novel. It's a fact of life that most punters see other punters as kindred spirits and pals. Well, get over it! They are the people you are taking the money from, if you really want to make a success of this game. It's a very strange feeling when this realisation finally sinks in. They have money that you want to take home with you.

And you can't teach old nags new tricks. Our article's title this month refers to us, not to horses! This is Stewart Simpson's "Always Back Winners" all over again. It's what Alan Potts is talking about (see last month). Know your animals and know what they can do. If they didn't stay 2000m last preparation, don't put your money down in the vain hope that they might do it today. If they didn't, they most likely won't. And that's regardless of anything you might hear to the contrary from connections. No new tricks.

Rule 6 of course is half joke, half serious. Keeping your ears twitched doesn't necessarily mean at the racetrack. It's a sort of a general metaphor to cover all your reading, all your listening and watching; in fact it is telling you to remain alert. Be awake. See what's going on around you, even if it involves a race which is a month or two away.

For example, at time of writing, the autumn programs of two of Australia's very top animals are still being debated by connections. The two animals I refer to are Grand Armee and Alinghi. When you are reading this, draw from the experience: remember that when I wrote it the autumn careers of these two top horses were undecided, and so it would have taken a brave bet (perhaps a silly bet!) to support either horse at relatively short odds in any event.

Now you have time on your side, imagine how you would feel if you had decided that one of these two horses was worth a bet in the Doncaster, and you found that neither of them was starting. From where I sit at the moment, there is a fair chance that this could happen. Or not. I just don't know. Consequently, I rule them out of all consideration because I don't know.

Anyway, even if I thought there was a fair chance of their starting, their odds would be too short to attract me. Not, perhaps, as short as the 3/1 ($4) that is Ray's lower limit, but certainly way below my prepost lower limit.

Ray is in a different world with his British betting shops. Interestingly, we are tending to head that way, with some of our biggest bookmakers offering highly competitive pre-post prices on Thursdays and Fridays for Saturday racing. Some of my contacts have refocused a significant amount of their betting onto these markets.

And then, finally, we have the warning from Ray to restrict ourselves to a maximum bet of 5 per cent. That 5 per cent is much too high for me. I am a 1 per cent or even a half per cent person. My favourite staking system, one of Statsman's, is well known and involves 1/100th or 1/200th of the highest point of my bank. This represents 1 per cent or one half per cent.

And so there we have that wonderful set of rules from this amazing character. The tension in the book will keep you reading and of course there has to be a horse race. You won't be disappointed. I surprised myself by taking so much time on this book, and particularly on one page, but I make no excuses. It's a book that lives with you all your life.

The American Barry Meadow wrote some excellent articles a couple of years back for PPM and has been very kind to us, sharing his ideas and secrets. His book Money Secrets at the Racetrack is a class act, with the one reservation that it is for America and not for Australia. However, the financial side, which is easily the most significant aspect of the book, has enough on its own to repay purchase.

Barry poses one of the great lines in racing, when he tries to ask how much you actually like a horse that you are proposing to back. "I like the four a little bit" is a vague example that he gives. Do you mean you like it at 6/1? Or as the probable winner at 6/5? Enough to make a large bet on it? How much is that "little bit"?

Barry would have you make an odds line. He argues that it will make you quantify your opinion relative to all the other horses in the race. Notice? All the other horses in the race. Not just some. He invites you to work to a perfectly round book of 100 per cent.

He further points out that if you think the best horse is even money ($2), then you are arguing that the horse will win 50 per cent of the time. That of course is simple percentages, but he really spells it out for people who need it spelt out. He has quite a bit to say about another short word that you and I have probably done to death: the "edge". No edge, no long-term win. It's as simple as that.

Andy Beyer first attracted my attention when I was in North America in 1979 and I discovered his Picking Winners and brought it home, terribly excited about it. I lent it to my good friend, the late George Tafe, and I never saw it again. I hope whoever's got it now treasures it. It's available in paperback these days and has taken on a kind of celebrity role, particularly in America and Britain, as a pioneer of the speed revolution.

Andy wrote several top books, but when he came to Australia and tried to apply his theories he was forced to accept that they didn't work here, on turf, as well as they worked for him at home in the States. Nevertheless, his books rank among the best on my shelves.

Then there is Dr Bill Quirin, computer whiz and writer of several superb books based on his observations as a computer expert.

Another American I have always admired is the talented Dr James Quinn, who must spend most of his waking hours writing. His overview of American racing experts is one of my favourites but if you want a briefer introduction to his own work then Class of the Field is a book unique in style and very helpful to anybody who is interested in ratings.

When Andy Beyer produced his first book, mentioned above, he made quite frequent references to a racetrack friend, one Steven Davidowitz. This prompted Steve himself to produce a book within a very short period, the classic Betting Thoroughbreds.

This publication received rave reviews at the time and the second revised edition in the late 1990s made for a hit revival. What I particularly liked about Steve's approach was something that he might have regarded as a bit of a minor player in the book. This was his separation of bets into Prime and Action bets.

A Prime bet was a special bet, a main, very serious bet. A big bet. A professional bet, a bet that represented a significant proportion of your bank, and one that you heavily depended upon, at least over a period of time.

An Action bet was a bet made to keep you from running amok. Steve recognised what we all know, that you can't just sit and- watch race after race, go to meeting after meeting, and do nothing. I can't, anyway. I doubt whether you can either.

Apart from Raysy, only my greatly missed racing friend, Reg Maloney, was capable of that. Reg could sit and watch every race for weeks on end. Out of the blue, after a race had been run, he might produce a ticket, pass it quietly to me, and either secure it back in his top pocket (he never carried a wallet, just a large wad of notes), or spend the next five minutes screwing it into a little ball until it was unrecognisable.

Close associates were not surprised if a winning ticket was way into the four figures mark. But those who knew Reg really well knew that win, lose or draw (well, you don't really draw in this game do you?), he was unlikely to have another investment until the next Pancake Day. That was discipline! He bought a house on it, amongst other things. I couldn't do that, I suspect that you couldn't either, and that is where Steven Davidowitz comes in. He offers you the Action bet.

You can have a series of small bets to keep you happy, and to ensure that you don't miss a horse that you have a feeling about. Or you can have a hit at the daily double, or two or three trifectas. But they are small, these Action bets, and they don't get in the road of your investment. You treat them more like lottery tickets, and you bet accordingly.

Fifty Action bets might be the equivalent of one Prime bet. So you can have a good time at the races or the TAB without doing yourself too much damage.

It's an interesting philosophy, isn't it? It really depends on your personality and your psychological makeup but it suits some people, and I definitely know it suits some of my readers who have written to tell me so in past years. There are so many other writers I could have mentioned in this overview.

Mark Coton comes to mind. His books are still regarded as amongst the best ever written, particularly if you like advice as to do's and don'ts of racing investment.

Nick Mordin's Betting for a Living has its adherents, and is particularly strong on providing us with glimpses of several other leading writers and analysts.

Nick's work on class, and his advice on what to look for in the mounting yard, make excellent reading. His large journal is great value if your interest is in jumping races.

That will have to do. I am looking at a pile of at least another 30 books which we haven't been able to cover, but, as they say, there's always another day.

Click here to read Part 1.

By The Optimist