Professional punters always talk about 'beating the crowd' or betting 'against the herd'. What they mean, of course, is that their profits come from the overlay winners the general public sends out at a better price than their estimated 'true' chance in a race.

But professionals around the world have more to say than just 'bet against the crowd, mate' because it is only one aspect of their daily battle for financial survival in what is a jungle of mysteries and contradictions.

Using the writings, and general comments, of some of the world's best-known professionals, I have compiled a question-and-answer database of professional 'intelligence' that should help the average punter to fine-tune his or her betting procedures.

In this first article, the three experts I have chosen are British professional punter Alan Potts, author of Against The Crowd, our own in-house genius The Optimist, author of many fine betting books, and Andy Beyer, the American professional whose books, like The Winning Horseplayer and Beyer On Speed, are international best-sellers.

Q: What is your overall view of betting on horse-racing and being successful at it?

The Optimist says: "You have to have patience. If you don't, forget about winning. It's as simple as that. Practise on paper. Do not bet for the first three months. See how you manage your selections."

In his book, Alan Potts points out that racehorse betting is a difficult game and warns that no-one is immune from losing runs or loss of confidence.

He also says there are no fortunes to be made from full-time betting, but there can be a steady income for the hard-working and the competent. His own staking levels, by 1991, had him turning over around $200,000 a season, at which level it remains today.

Andy Beyer's main advice is that the very nature of the game tends to punish arrogance and overconfidence. His view is that if the most astute of handicappers becomes complacent for a long

enough time, he will one day wake up to find that his once-successful methods don't work anymore.

"So even after a horseplayer has struggled for years and finally learned how to beat the races, he had better not pause too long to rest on his laurels," Beyer writes in The Winning Horseplayer. "The game will keep slowly changing, and the winning player must keep on observing, adapting his methods and changing with it."

Q: Is there a secret to analysing form?

As regular readers will know, The Optimist conducts our 'ratings' pages with great success. These horses form the basis of his personal betting attack.

"First and foremost I look for that elusive factor, class," he says. "I look for a certain something that says 'I am worth backing in a city race'. Then I try to assess the level at which the horse will compete and ought to compete.

"I Often have to make assumptions about the trainer's ability to correctly place his horses, so I can rate them to when they are placed in the correct class. I look for form on the board, and potential. I look at young horses
trained by the top men, as these trainers have proved to be successful year in, year out.

"I do look hard at the top stables and I look at what the top jockeys choose to ride. I love high percentage horses."

Potts says his own method reverses the standard logic and concentrates on the fact that every 10-runner race must contain nine losers. He looks for reasons why horses cannot win, rather than the reasons why they will win.

He writes brief notes, commenting on the negatives for those he considers likely to lose. These will cover factors like incorrect distance, unsuitable going, stable out of form, not suited by the track, too much weight, outclassed, out of form and so on.

The horse that cannot be eliminated he places on a short list for further analysis. If this list contains more than four names he assumes the race is likely to be 'too competitive' to be considered for a bet.

Doing the work on a race, says Potts, does not necessarily mean he will have a bet, or that he will know on the morning of the race exactly what bets he will place later in the day.

He regards his form study an 'essential background' against which he can measure the later information that comes to hand, before deciding whether to bet. In the races on which he ends up not betting, his form study allows him to put the actual result into perspective - was it an unexpected outcome or something to have been expected?

If the result turns out a surprise, Potts says he goes back to the formbook that evening to see what he missed the first time around.

Andy Beyer developed his own speed ratings after many years of handicapping races in the conventional manner. He made such a success of the ratings that they are now considered the 'benchmark' ratings in America, and are used for every race covered in the Daily Racing Form, the nation's premier formguide.

He says: "When I started calculating speed figures and using them to bet the horses, I saw quickly that they were the most powerful tool in the game. By taking into account the difference in surfaces over which horses run, and the different distances of thoroughbred races, they translated every horse's performance into a single number that neatly defined his ability. They addressed the central question of handicapping who can run faster than whom?"

Q: How do you make the most of betting against the crowd? Can anyone do it?

Alan Potts says that if, after studying the form, you can make a good argument for supporting a long-priced horse, then you must bet it. His argument is that these bets, although carrying more risk, are what clearly mark out the punter who bets against the crowd.

Finding those value bets, he warns, demands constant form study and 'inexhaustible patience' to wait for the right opportunity. A high percentage of the bets will be losers, and losing runs can be lengthy, but mixed in with what he calls the 'orthodox day to day bets', Potts claims the longshots will help to provide pure profit.

In 1993, Potts' records show that he had 48 bets where the price secured was 10/1 or better. The potential return on these bets varied from $4000 up to $18,000, depending on the price and his degree of confidence. The 48 bets produced only five winners after a run of 28 losers but at the end of the year the longshot bets showed a profit of more than $17,000 on a turnover of around $29,000.

After that run of 28 losers, he had lost some $16,000 on longshots but his profits from the smaller-priced horses had restricted his overall deficit to around $4000 at that time.

The Optimist has always been a fan of going for the good-value runners, but he's the first to admit that there is always an ongoing debate about whether to bet for the win or eachway. His own rules are to never bet eachway in races with more than 12 runners, unless you can see the final or permanent tote place price for the selection, never in races with less than 8 starters, never in races where your fancy is in the middle bracket of prices, say 4/1 to 7/ 1, and never in wfa races where the favourite is short - unless the race is restricted to 8 or 9 runners.

Most professionals seem to agree that if you have an overlay bet, then back it for a win, and use it as a Banker in exactas, quinellas and trifectas in order to maximise your collect should it win.

Andy Beyer is a believer in the exotics for the small to middlerange bettor but he knows that with the joy they bring can come a lot of pain. He explains: "The advent of the exotic wagering era has introduced ... unprecedented potential for pain and suffering.

"In addition to excruciating defeats, a handicapper who concentrates on the exotics will necessarily endure longer droughts and losing streaks than the more conservative player. He will rarely have the confidence-building satisfaction that comes from a long succession of winning days.

"Because of all the psychological pitfalls, a bettor needs to proceed cautiously if he intends to emphasise wagers like the Pick 6 or the Twin Trifecta (bets available in the USA)."

Through hard experience, Beyer now has the patience to wait through the unproductive months in the expectation. that one bonanza will make his overall results satisfactory. A punter who needs more frequent 'gratification' should adopt a more conservative strategy, he says.

Q: Can you provide a strategy for a year's betting?

Alan Potts makes it clear in his excellent book that a punter does need to be organised and to have clear in his mind a plan of attack, and a list of do's and don'ts.

He restricts himself to win bets, maintains a 2/1 minimum price limit, has a serious think about any bet under 4/1, concentrates on races at 1600m and further, ignores all but the best 2yo races, lets the first race go by, never worries about not having a bet, and is always prepared to travel a long way for just one bet.

He admits there is nothing too revolutionary in his approach but, he says, it's easy to lose your way and start making bets you will regret the moment you get home.

Andy Beyer believes in a strategy of 'maximum boldness', figuring that he won't land the big windfall returns unless he is prepared to take some risks. He will bet creatively on exactas and on the American Pick 6, in which the bettor has to land 6 winners in 6 chosen races. The payouts often are enormous.

The Optimist's major golden rule, as part of an overall strategy, is to be there. He says: "When you're at the track you see things happening, you sense a move, you spot a flaw in your thinking. You realise the track is uneven. You find that you can get 20/1 with the bookie and the tote is only 12 / 1, or vice-versa."

Q: Do you believe in such things as a list of horses to follow?

Alan Potts says he's a great believer in preparing and maintaining a list of horses to follow because it involves a 'clear understanding' of the merit, preferences and foibles of an individual horse which enables him to spot when a horse has been handed a good opportunity to win.

The size of the list, he explains, is a matter of personal preference. It depends on how much time you have available, but he does point out that such a list should be constantly scrutinised and reassessed.

"A list of horses to follow should contain only those who are, one hopes, on the way up the handicap, not those who are now spending their declining years humping 10 stone around lesser tracks," he writes in his book.

So far as The Optimist is concerned, a punter should make as much use as possible of published photo-form, and, if possible, video replays. From these, he says, a punter can find the horses who could be worth following in the future.

He even has a plan that incorporates these elements of form study. It says you bet only where you can secure good photos of previous results. You establish a stable from the photos.

These could be horses that won by more than a length, leading throughout; horses that ran 2nd to 5th last start but not more than two and a half lengths behind the winner; horses that are course specialists and horses that ran with a rider switch from apprentice to senior jockey and finished within a couple of lengths of the winner.

Q: What is your main target for a 12 months period?

For Alan Potts, his aspiration is to make an annual profit of at least $20,000. Not a great sum, he admits, but a fair income. To achieve this, though, he plans to turn over about $200,000 in bets, since a 10 per cent profit is what he has assessed he can reasonably expect based on the past 10 years of his betting.

On these figures, he adds, his average stake has to be around $666. In 1993, he virtually matched that figure when he had 291 bets. He could, of course, reduce the quantity of bets but then his average stake would have to be raised.

** AGAINST THE CROWD by Alan Potts (Aesculus Press).

** BEYER ON SPEED by Andy Beyer (Houghton Mifflin, New York)

NEXT MONTH: More advice and suggestions from another trio of international professionals.

By Jon Hudson