In this special feature, three of PPM's well-known contributors, plus a new face, get together to talk about various aspects of selection and betting. Philip Roy chairs the debate with Mark Merrick, Dennis Walker of The Rating Bureau and new contributor P.B. King (the nom-de-plume of a semi-professional bettor from Melbourne).

PR: I'd like to kick off the discussion on the inevitably hot topic of price and value. Is there a rough guide the average punter can use to determine the lowest price he should accept about a selection?

PBK: Well, I have always kept my eye on that old one which says that the suggested minimum is ONE deducted from the number of assessed true contenders. If you consider there are four main chances in a race with, more or less, equal chances of winning, then the lowest acceptable price about any of them should be 3/1 one subtracted from four.

MM: I think that's a pretty good way for the ordinary punter to assess prices if he can't afford the time to go into things more deeply. It's easy and relatively safe.

PR: Yes, I think that, employed with good common sense, it will help a punter to avoid two bad approaches, the first taking a price which is less than the horse's estimated true chance and second, betting on races in which there are just too many chances with close to level prospects of winning.

MM: I guess this all gets around to sensible betting, as opposed to compulsive and haphazard gambling. I've forgotten how much we have preached this aspect of things in PPM over the years and yet I still see punters at the track, and the TABS, betting like crazy on every race at every possible venue.

PBK: When I first began betting seriously, a long time ago now, I realised very quickly it was essential that I weigh the worth and value of every bet I had. I had to weigh the possible profit against the risk involved.

DW: This reminds me of some advice I once offered to a dejected client who had just decimated a $3,000 betting bank on what amounted to an unsound trifecta betting strategy. Profit he had accumulated over three months had gone in one day. I suggested he ask himself a serious question before placing a bet: How will you feel on the morning after if your strategy is wrong? Years later, this gentleman told me this was the most profound advice he was ever given and has never since felt dejected and depressed about the outcome of a day's punting. It did take him many months but he got all his money back again.

MM: Yes, you need to be fully aware of any betting strategy's potential pitfalls. You can never really underestimate the length of a losing run. It's easy to believe you will never back 20 losers in a row but it can happen, and it will happen! I've been there and tasted the poison.

PR: I think there is little doubt that the answer to successful turf investment is money management.

It's something the writers in this magazine have written about a great deal since 1985. I wonder if the message has got through?

PBK: The punter who bets' without a logical approach, and bets too many times, will enjoy his good days but the odds are against him being a long-term winner. Both the punter and the bookie need to be systematic without necessarily operating a system as such. Orderly, I suppose.

PR: If a small-bet punter stops to think about it, actually making a decent profit on betting is not all that hard. We all tend to make it hard by betting madly. A person finding one bet a week on the place tote, say a certain placegetter paying 1/5, would be earning a profit of 20 cents on the invested dollar.

MM: Exactly, but how many punters have the discipline to pick one horse a week? Most of us desire action and excitement and the prospect of big windfall returns. It's betting we care about, tilting at windmills.

PBK: In recent years I have come to rely more and more on my personal ratings. I was influenced very much in the '80s by Don Scott and, in more recent times, by The Rating Bureau's class and weight ratings. It's sensible ratings that allow me to draw up accurate 'true' pricelines and then back the overlays on the exotics. Perhaps Dennis can say something on this subject, given that he is one of the masterminds at The Rating Bureau?

DW: Well, ratings can be created in many ways: weight ratings, class ratings, speed ratings, time ratings, prizemoney ratings, consistency ratings. There really is no right or wrong, only degrees of accuracy. One of the most widely accepted rating methods is to create a single number representing a measurement of past performances with a view to assessing the likely performance of each runner. Provided each runner has been assessed accurately, but subjectively, then in the same manner the rating numbers can be converted to probabilities, which are then converted to odds for the purposes of assessing the predicted race outcome in a more meaningful and accurate manner.

PBK: Now we are getting to things like overlays?

DW. Yes. The real value of a rating method can only be effectively measured by comparing the assessed odds to the available odds. In short, if your rating method is sound you will make more money when adopting the betting-to-prices regime than using level, or flat, stakes. That's to say, the better and more accurate your ratings, the more percentage on turnover you will make. Thus, the wider the outward gap between your odds and the available odds, the more profit on turnover you'll enjoy.

PBK: Like me, then, you appreciate the value of betting to prices.

DW. It's generally accepted that betting-to-prices is backing the overlays to take out a set amount on the assessed odds rather than the available odds. But you must be at the track to get the 2 / 1 about the $2.10 tote chance, and this will give you the ability to improve the bottom line by around 10 per cent. The punter has to back the value. If a rating is best expressed as the likelihood of the predicted outcome occurring, then why would anyone back a horse that is top rated but predicted to have a 20 per cent chance of winning, when the best available odds are even money, representing a 50 per cent chance?

PR: I think it was the late Eric Connolly who said that no-one should consistently bet on horses unless they possess a clear understanding of the mathematics of betting. How right he was! After all, the entire business of bookmaking is based on figures. Punting should be the same.

MM: We get back to the question of why some people win at betting and most lose. The public loses through over-betting and betting without purpose. There was a famous American professional I read about some years back called Colonel Bradley and he said that in any speculative game, or business, in which the bettor had a percentage working against him, the only way to win consistently was to 'copper' the public's ideas and operations.

PR: 'Copper' . . . What does that mean, Mark?

MM: It's an American slang term, meaning 'to bet against'. Bradley's argument was that, in racing, the betting public was wrong more times than it was right so, except in certain circumstances, it must pay to bet against the public.

PBK: One of the first lessons I learned was to know when to hold back. I think knowing when not to bet is as important as anything else and this probably adds weight to what Dennis was saying about the feeling you have on the morning following a silly day's betting. It's an awful feeling. You know . . . 'I could have kicked myself' . . . and so on. You must bet sensibly.

MM: This is where value comes into play. Consideration of the value component of the bet. If you take bad prices, then inevitably you are signing your own financial death warrant.

PR: Sometimes little things you remember can prevent you from falling into bad bets. Like the one that says beware of backing any horse in a handicap which is up in weight and down in price. How many times have we all lost through backing horses which would have been automatically discarded had this rule been applied?

PBK: I would add a little caution here. That rule is a pretty sensible one, but in racing it's impossible to make any definite rulings. Each race is a fresh problem.

MM: Very much so. Let me ask you, PB, how do you go about deciding which races to bet every raceday?

PBK: For a start, I eliminate any race with seven or fewer runners, and those with 16 or more runners. I concentrate on races between 1400m and 2000m, and mainly Open handicaps and Welters, and the Group One weight-for-age events. I find I can operate successfully with these restrictions. I don't bet every day. Usually I will confine my plays to metropolitan meetings in Sydney or Melbourne, sometimes Brisbane (in the winter), midweek and Saturday, though at the lesser city meetings I do cut back my stake. Saturdays are my pot-of-gold days most seasons.

MM: And losing runs? How do you cope?

PBK: I bet two or more horses a race so I don't strike horrendous losing runs. I easily pick up any losses with overlay winners in subsequent races. I have this philosophy that I never panic, that I accept defeat and try to learn from it ... and there have been many painful lessons.

NEXT MONTH: The Great Debate continues, covering such issues as staking methods, systems and the best tracks at which to bet.

Click here to read Part 2.

By Philip Roy, Mark Merrick, P.B. King and Dennis Walker