I discussed with Brian the prospects of taking an overall look at what is available, so far as the best racing literature is concerned.

We agreed that although we talk every month about specific writers and their theories, as you will recall from Brian’s three fascinating articles concerning the English expert Alan Potts, we haven’t put the whole thing together for a long while.

I will quite deliberately keep our own experts out of this analysis. All regular readers of PPM are well aware that we have the number one systems expert in Statsman.

We also have incomparable week-by-week selectors such as Martin Dowling, and we could go on blowing our trumpet, but that’s not the point. What I’ve tried to do in these pages is to provide you with a professional overview of the advice and opinions of some of the great names.

None of them is Australian, and I suppose that will draw some flak (especially when I omit Don Scott). However, whilst I believe that Don revolutionised aspects of Australian betting, his was a very specialist area and I am looking today at the more general field.

So let’s start with American Dick Mitchell, a long-term favourite of mine. A principal argument of Mr Mitchell, one I have embraced wholeheartedly, is that backing a second horse in a race reduces your odds by one point, and not by 50 per cent. The argument goes amongst the purists that if you outlaid $2, with $1 on the first horse and $1 on the second horse, your dividend must be divided by two to calculate your correct odds.

Say one horse is paying $11 (10/1) and the other horse is paying $16 (15/1). If the first horse wins you receive $11 for your $2, a profit of $9. Your odds are therefore 9/2, or 4.5 to one. But in point of fact, by taking the bet on the losing $16 horse, you reduced your profit by one point: from 10 to nine. You did not halve your profits, you simply sacrificed a point for insurance. You won nine for two, not 9/2.

If the reverse had occurred and the longer priced horse won, then you’d have received $16 for a profit of $14, meaning that once again you had sacrificed a single point for insurance. You did not sacrifice 50 per cent. Mitchell makes much of this and his argument is compelling. Interestingly, one of his arguments in this respect is that supporting a second horse can be a lot more effective as a strategy than backing your first selection each way.

This is going to be especially true in America or any country which embraces all-tote betting.

He also (we will come back to this) believes that the bottom line for the punter is 3/1, or $4, for the win.

One of Mitchell’s great theories is that horses take turns. If horse A defeated horse B this week, the likely prospect is that horse B will reverse the situation at their next meeting. It happens, and then again it doesn’t. It is a very interesting point of view, especially if you have two horses that ran 1-2 lining up again, and one is at even money or even less, and the other is at remarkable odds. Clearly, the discerning punter will go after the latter and possibly save on the former, although that may not be possible if the former’s odds are too cramped.

Dick Mitchell says that the only time you should approach a daily double is if you would have supported the horses concerned as normal bets in each leg. In other words, you do not allow the track to dictate to you which races you will take your extra risks on. He also believes that the great discriminator is patience; lose that and you are gone.
All your performance analysis must be completely objective and not interfered with by “exotics temptations”.

It is Mitchell who introduced the concept of the “comfort zone”. I love that term: it just makes so much sense. Bet within your comfort zone. Anybody who has ever had anything to do with the racing game knows that this is one of the most commonsense philosophies that has ever been put forward. And yet we all have disobeyed it on occasions. That’s when the pulse rate rises, the perspiration starts, and you stop enjoying the whole thing.

Turning now to Stewart Simpson, I’ve mentioned him elsewhere in this magazine so let’s just get straight into his fundamental arguments. The best trainers win most races. The best riders ride most winners. The best horses beat the rest most of the time. And the winners beat the losers.

Does all of this sound familiar? Simpson’s absolute rule, unbendable, is that you should always aim to back a horse to do something it has done before. The horse must already be on your list and it must be a winner.

One of the most memorable little journeys that he takes us on is when he forces us to look objectively at the comments in the form guides. See if you can guess the answer without looking below. What do 95 per cent of form comments have in common? Not there yet? OK, I’ll give you a few clues.

  • Should be ready to win.
  • Has been knocking on the door.
  • Has been crying out for this distance.
  • Will be better suited here.
  • Whatever beats him will win.
  • Tragedy beaten last start.
  • Can make amends.

Yes, I think you’ve got it. All of those comments are about horses which lost. It’s the common thread. Once you’ve got a handle on that, and you’ve eliminated these horses, you end up looking at the winners (hence the title of the famous Simpson book). The thing that all these horses have in common is that they didn’t win!

I just love that piece of logic. Nothing is easier than to go through your sporting guide and identify unlucky, losing horses, horses which have not been winning but “today’s the day”. Then at the end of “today”, we know that this still wasn’t the day. If we’ve been sucked in, we will have excuses (and I am not excluding myself from this kind of temptation). We will just be sweating on the horse to run again, so we can support it again, and probably watch it get beaten again.

At least that’s where Stewart Simpson stands on this issue. “The common factor for most racing comments is that they are about losers”. That’s the Simpson sermon, right down to the nuts and bolts of racing. The more you think about it, the more difficult it becomes to walk around this argument.

Richard Sasuly is another of my old favourites. He preaches 3/1 as your minimum chance, as does Dick Mitchell above. Essentially he maintains that a 30 per cent win strike rate is about as good as it’s going to get, long-term, and that at 3/1 you can make a healthy professional profit over the distance. If you get 30 winners in a hundred investment bets at 3/1, you will be on 20 per cent profit. For Richard, that represents a secure income.

The English magazine Raceform published a series of very entertaining books for the statistically minded. Amongst them (and this is quite common in Britain) I regularly came upon the argument for supporting the course and distance winner. Obviously this falls in very nicely with what Simpson is suggesting, and anyway it seems totally reasonable. These useful books have come up with all sorts of snippets that I have added to my artillery. Another point they often make is to stick with the best; that most of the field will be at its peak for the best races, and that this should lead to “straight down the middle” handicapping.

When you think about it, the most obvious example is the weight for age race. A group one weight for age race, I would imagine, should just about represent the form student’s dream of heaven. Nobody is saying that these races are easy to analyse, but I think it is a fair argument that the Cox Plate offers the form analyst a considerably easier task than does the Melbourne Cup.

Good class racing, top level and just below it, is highly recommended in these books. PPM fans are well aware that we have always tended to focus on Saturdays for our selections. Agreed, once in a blue moon a great Sunday meeting will turn up (or even a Friday night one, with a top-class race in it), but long-term we have been able to provide our best service by consistently operating on Saturdays. Not all Saturdays are going to provide Group racing, and sometimes certain meetings are going to be pretty ordinary. But usually, somewhere, there will be some very good class racing on Saturday. You can’t say that with regular confidence about any other day of the week.

Stick to the good class racing, they say. Another reason which is promoted and, again, PPM readers know exactly where I’m coming from, is that there are more mug punters on Saturday afternoons. Several of the top writers are at great pains to spell out that your enemy is not the TAB, nor is it the bookmaker. It is the other punters: they are the ones whose money you are trying to take. The bookmaker is trying to make a living by balancing his book. If you are a regular he will more than likely be delighted if you win (so long as it is not too much, too often).

The “mug punter” is probably an offensive term, but that’s the way of the world. That’s how it is. He is the guy who is offering you your profits. It certainly isn’t the TAB, and it is unlikely to be the bookmaker. This is why, as one English writer has spelt out, Betfair represents such a major threat to the established “industry”. What it does is cut out the middleman, the guy who takes the profit from both sides. The most obvious example of the middleman is your friendly TAB and its shareholders. Knock them out and you’ve just achieved an immediate increase of anything up to 20 per cent in your profit options. Other things being equal, why would you want them to have at least 20 cents in every dollar you invest?

Another issue raised in one of these books is that weight is often overemphasised, that it is not necessarily vital, and though it may “stop a train”, it will not help any of the other horses to run faster. And so the train might still win! It’s why, when you get a race which looks a little bit like an old-fashioned welter, the topweight can storm home carrying anything up to 63kg or so. It is simply that he is better than the rest of the field, and a disparity of 10kg, give or take, between the top and the bottom of the handicaps, is not going to be enough to slow him down to the extent that the others can live with him.

That’s a vital point. Take note that I did not say “to allow the other horses to beat him”. Nothing on this earth is going to make these horses run faster than they can. That is an arguable fact. Nothing you can do will make a horse run faster than it is capable of running. All you can do as a handicapper is try to prevent a horse from running as fast as it can, by sticking half a house on top of it.

In highweight events, and the bottom end of good class racing, you get animals which are superior to the ones they are competing against. That is why TAB number 1 is so often a great standby in trifectas and quadrellas. Theoretically, taking nothing else whatsoever into consideration, this horse is the best horse in this field on this day. Sometimes an extra clue to your success in this regard, according to these books, can be the engagement of the top apprentice with the appropriate claim. Top apprentices don’t hold onto their claims for very long out here, but that is no excuse for not keeping your eyes open. I saw Jay Ford coax a few home during his time.

At present, let’s keep our eye out for the next good kid!

Seeking false favourites is something that a lot of these experts concentrate on. Although I promised that I would stay away from Alan Potts, I must acknowledge his great recommendation in this regard: if you can find a race with a false favourite, then whatever you back to defeat it is likely to be a value bet. The trick of course is to find the false favourite, and that will be in your “opinion basket”. But I’ll give you a worthwhile exercise if you like.

Buy another form guide this coming Friday or Saturday. If you usually purchase one copy of the local newspaper, buy two. In the spare copy, with your bright yellow marker pen, identify every favourite that you believe genuinely deserves to be favourite.

Now, with your bright red marker pen, identify every favourite that you have serious doubts about. It doesn’t matter why, all that matters is that you seriously doubt that those horses you have identified are genuine favourites in their races. After you’ve completed this task, I want you to go back through all these races that you have marked with your bright red pen, and perform a more thorough analysis.

Now do the same to the yellow chaps.

Assuming that you have had a very good look at all the favourites (so far as the paper’s pre-post analysts are concerned) how many races have you come up with where you do not believe that the horse nominated as favourite deserves to be there? This is a fascinating exercise and can teach you an enormous amount about your own skills and the way we are often sucked in to a predetermined betting market.

Space is getting away from me and there is still a lot of ground to cover. I wonder how many people took my advice and either read, or watched the movie, Last Orders. The hero of this great book is a professional punter, but so different from any that you have ever imagined. He also happens to be a really nice guy who has half a dozen simple rules he shares with us in the book. I’m sure some readers have smiled to notice that a horse with his name was running around in Sydney and is now domiciled in Melbourne (and won at cricket score odds quite recently).

Next month I will pick this up with the philosophies and the recommendations that are put forward by this quiet genius. Then we can have a look at some other ones I didn’t have time to consider in this issue.

Click here to read Part 2.

By The Optimist