Russell Clarke is one of Britain's best known racing experts. His angles on racing have been published in the prestigious Raceform Update newspaper. This article is an extract from his latest book Thoughts Of A Semi-Professional, which has recently gone on sale in the UK.

The only way to win money at horse-racing is to bet horses that are at a bigger price than their winning chance. The betting market itself is almost perfect in its long-term analysis of chances.

Unless you are prepared to spend long hours on form study, overlays can only be found by a systematic approach. This can take the form of pure systems (that utilise positive expectation angles) in a diversified portfolio or a method that takes advantage of a factor underestimated by odds-makers.

In countries such as America, where form study is taken far more seriously than it is in the UK, those who practise the art (science?) all have one great, unforgiving enemy TIME. In almost every American racing book I have read, lack of time is mentioned as a limiting factor.

Mark Cramer, in his latest offering, Kinky Handicapping, makes the point that straight (traditional) handicappers who spend many hours on each day's racing eventually suffer burnout and need to take time out to rest.

The constant effort that is required to bet profitably is immense. A typical day would involve five hours form study, travel to and from a racecourse, three hours at the course, and further study of the next day's racing. A constant treadmill that you cannot stay on indefinitely.

It's one of the reasons why I believe professional gambling is really for those who cannot earn a living any other way! Believe me, their earnings in £'s per hour will be far less than the majority who are reading this book, and the stress level is considerably higher.

I believe you need to erase from your mind any preconceived ideas that you have regarding betting on racehorses. The traditional method of assessing a race involves examining form ratings, the going and distance requirements of the horses, the course, the trainers and jockeys etc. To do this effectively can take an hour or more per race and your conclusions are unlikely to differ greatly from those of other experts.

To win at racing a more original 'modus operandi' is required. Some of the most successful operators on the stock market make their profits by acting contrary to public opinion. Buying when the crowd is selling, and vice-versa.

Their argument runs that a flurry of selling reduces prices and therefore produces 'bargain shares'. The commonsense of the argument is apparent. Prior to a stock market crash the sales of unit-trusts are invariably at an all-time high. Investors love to buy when shares are rising.

One leading investment house has shown that over a 10-year period you will achieve greater growth by investing in the worst-performing fund of the previous year than by investing in the best-performing fund of the previous year! Indeed, it has run a fund based solely on this criteria.

The theory is, then, that we must operate contrary to the 'herd' to win in the long term. If we run with the 'herd', we end up with their results and, as we know, the majority cannot win. In practice, following this advice is not so simple.

The reason is simple. In most cases you will be wrong when taking the contrary view; it is only in the long run that you will profit. In the context of racing, following the 'herd' would be backing the most popular selections (i.e. the favourites). You may win more often than the 'contrary' handicapper but in the long run your loss is assured.

If we can grasp this fundamental principle, we at least stand a chance of beating the book. So what is the next step? You must accept that the general racing public is pretty good at assessing relative chances. Every year the percentage of horses winning at 6/4 will exceed that of those winning at 2/1, and these in turn will have a greater strike rate than those at 3/1. This is as it should be.

It does not help us beat the book but does emphasise the size of the task ahead. Successful systems, or spot plays as they are known in America, utilise the contrary theory to be profitable. They home in on a factor that is underestimated by the general public. If this factor is of greater significance than is generally accepted, then a long-term profit is assured.

In summary, to win in the long term you must bet against fashion and the crowd. You will lose more often than you win, but need the courage of your convictions to continue your strategy. Systems can emphasise trends and cycles and test your theories by isolating variables.

Remember that as one profitable angle is closed, another opens because as one horse shortens another drifts. Always remember that the alternative to this strategy is to join the crowd, and losses are then assured. To be profitable, be aware of fashion, but not a dedicated follower.

If you keep records of your betting try this exercise: Split your bets into two columns. The first column should contain the horses you have backed that you would describe as PROGRESSIVE. The definition of a progressive horse being one likely to show greater than normal improvement. In the second column, enter the rest.

As a final check, by the side of the progressive horses, write a short sentence to describe why the horse is in the column. If you are not convinced, move it to the second column. When you check the profitability of both columns I guarantee - if you have been honest that the progressive horses have a better profitability than the rest.

This is the basic principle of my approach. In my first book, I touched upon many of the issues facing handicappers today, and the influences on their betting.

I talked about changing fashions and the effect on the odds of the popularity of speed figures and form ratings over the last 20 years.

The use of collateral form ratings is engrained in the British psyche. We gain comfort from the illusion of a league table of racehorses' performances. It is not logical for the ability of any horse to be represented by a single figure.

There are too many other factors that influence performance. Therefore, use ratings as a guide but do not become a slave of figures.

It is strange that many punters are so influenced by what has happened in the past. We see this mentality in other aspects of British sport in the reluctance to get rid of a national football or cricket player who may have performed well in the past but is now so clearly on a downward spiral.

It is probably not so clear with horse-racing, but a horse's progression and then its decline often come suddenly and almost unexpectedly. Horses are not machines and cannot be relied upon to produce similar performances month by month, year after year, and yet many do follow clear and distinct upward-downward cycles.

Many punters are disappointed and dismayed when the horses they thought were invincible are beaten by a more progressive opponent. The better-class horse is no longer, and the young pretender is crowned.

This slowness to adapt, this gullibility to the media, and this inability of the majority to anticipate does give opportunities to the shrewd handicapper. The ability to focus our attention on those horses that are progressive and to discipline our betting exchanges solely around these animals is the single most powerful weapon any punter can have.

Every time you bet, ask yourself 'does this horse pass the progressive criteria test that I set it?' and keep strictly to your own personal testing kit. Of course, progressiveness is a subjective concept ... we all differ in the horses we wish to follow, as we all have a capacity to interpret the signals differently.

This means that there will be overlay opportunities a ‘plenty and we can be safe in the knowledge that we are not following the herd. Some of the horses we will be right with, and some we may be wrong, but providing we keep our minds focused all the time, we should not be disappointed and that long-term profit that we strive for shall be ours. 

Thoughts Of A Semi-Professional by Russell Clarke is mainly aimed at UK punters but the basic principles can easily be applied to Australian racing.

By Russell Clarke