Scratch a professional punter today and what are you likely to find? Probably a man steeped in computer-driven ratings, and addicted to video replays! A marked contrast, I suggest, to the professionals of the old days, when pen and paper and plain old eyesight ruled the betting world.

There is an enormous difference between the professionals of the '90s and the same punters of 40 and 50 years ago. Modern bettors have a great deal more information available. There are some who will claim this is not such a good thing! Too much information leads to overload and breakdown, they say.

The old-time professionals were probably more aware on a 'firsthand' basis than their modern counterparts. The pro of today could well never see a racetrack, and be glued to a computer screen or a TV screen, or locked away in a commission room at a track.

There are punters, of course, who are always at the races, betting big money, and they take the 'body language' side of things most seriously. They are, I suggest, in the minority.

In the days of professionals like the long-departed Rufe Naylor and Eric Connolly, things were a lot different. These men, who had much less racing to cope with, were as close as you can get to the real-life beating heart of racing.

We can still learn much from them. Both were regarded, for long periods anyway, as the cleverest punters of their era. They were steeped in all aspects of racing and they would never hesitate to make the fullest use of their knowledge.

Naylor used to say that the successful punter was the one who knew when to bet and how to bet. He meant that it was a lost cause to bet on any old race in any old way.

The right way to go about things was to wait patiently for the right race and then make the most of the opportunity. Naylor, though, had black spots.

One man who knew him well had this to say about him in the late 1950s: "He was the most puzzling of all the big pro gamblers. Generally his betting would be shrewd and careful, every bet carefully assessed to give him the best possible value but, sometimes, he would deviate from his golden rules and indulge in some very silly wagering.

"One of his favourite betting methods was in the days when races were divided on the top-and bottom principle. He would wait for races with eight or nine runners which had only two or three real chances. On these he would try to bet unlimited amounts eachway at SP.

"Naylor was perhaps without a peer in one regard and that was his ability to scan a set of prices and tell at a glance to just what percentage a bookie was operating."

Naylor apparently liked to study form through the night. He had a team of informants who kept him abreast of all the major stables in Sydney.

Naylor's three main beliefs were these:

  • Wait for the right race and the right horse.
  • Bet two or more in a race if you are confident of a nice percentage gain.
  • Always have a sense of value and never bet if you can't secure the price you want.
  • When in doubt, forget the race.

Eric Connolly was a somewhat different kettle of fish. He bet in a number of different ways. Like Naylor, he was more of a gambler than a man who approached racing in a scientific manner.

He was keen on big plunges, especially on major handicap races. A firm believer in weights. he also wanted the right inside information and he had a reputation for backing fewer non- triers than any punter of his time.

One of his favourite methods was to make a 'book' against the bookmakers. He said: "If the average punter would only await the right race and then make a book against the fielder he would beat him in the finish. He would average too many winning races."

Connolly meant that the punter had to refrain from trying to pick all the winners on a card and by betting only one horse per race. His idea was that on just about every race card there are at least one or two races in which it is possible to trim down the chances with a view to making the selection of the winner a safe venture.

Pierre Neveu was a French better who operated for some time on UK tracks in the 1950s. He specialised in betting against favourites. He only bet on a race in which he could find a horse that he figured could beat the favourite. Through this method, Pierre was able to obtain very good prices about his selections. He never had to take short odds.

Research shows, of course, that shrewd punters, as Pierre must have been, can readily find false favourites because they tend to crop up about twice in every nine races, on average, that is.

There are still punters like Pierre who make a living out of betting against favourites. The approach is to thoroughly sift through the favourite's form, seeking out weaknesses that others have overlooked. Once a favourite is found with shaky foundations, the search then begins for a runner to beat it.

If you do not wish to ignore the favourite altogether, you could adopt the approach of backing both the first favourite and your 'knockoff' selection - but only when the combined odds are such that you can get away with at least a 50 per cent profit on the bet. Pierre Neveu often took this course.

In the Paris Turf-Action formguide many years ago, Pierre, writing of his betting exploits, said: "I needed the favourite to be at a fair price, 2/1, and my horse chosen to beat it could be at any price above that. My worst result, should the favourite win, was a profit of one point on the two points I bet. If the other horse won, I gained more, sometimes a lot more."

If both runners failed, the loss was only two units (or points, as Pierre called them). You can see that if you were able to choose races carefully, as Pierre did in a long and successful career, then you could make plenty.

You would not be betting on underpriced favourites and you would have a value selection, carefully chosen as the big threat, running for you to pick up the 'cream' in the event of the favourite missing out.

Were you to operate solely on first and second favs, the percentages would be with you to the extent that first favs win around 30 per cent of all races and 2nd favs win another 20 to 22 per cent (approximately) so there's a more than 50 per cent winners' strike rate.

We can learn, then, from some of the 'old masters'. What they did to earn their bread and butter was to use plain old-fashioned commonsense to find their selections and to bet them. They did it well, without computers and videos. We have an even better chance of making it all work.

By Jon Hudson