Several Sundays ago, I was watching SKY Racing's coverage of minor race meetings, some at places I'd hardly heard of, let alone visited. The programmes were full of Maidens and Class 1 and 2 races. I wondered, "How on earth do people pick winners at places like this?"

Often there're no readily available formguides to speak of, although Sportsman does a good job these days, and SKY doesn't provide any in-depth information to help determine the merits of the various runners.

I recalled a conversation I'd had with a semi-professional punter way back in the 1960s. This punter, now in his eighties, said that he often found it easier to find a good priced winner in the bush than in the city. It was, he explained, just a matter of working through the form and trying to develop a mental picture of each race.

I decided to see if the angles he passed on could be used with winning effect on the minor meetings and the lower-grade races.

There's a lot of sense in what he told me, but it's not possible to document his thoughts into a straight-out set of methodical rules.

It's more like taking a set of broad principles, around which you weigh up the runners and, just as importantly, the relationship between each runner in a race.

For a few weeks, I applied his general principles to each lowergrade race-winner ... after the race had been run. I quickly discovered that no matter how rough a winner was, or how long its starting price, in every case there was an underlying reason for the success, whether it was in the field makeup, or just an inkling of form.

There has not been one occasion when I could categorically say that the winner could not have won. There was always something which led me back to the principles espoused by my pal all those years ago.

Here's a summary of his principles:

  • Be wary of older horses, maybe those 5 years and over.
  • Be wary of short-priced 3yo's (fillies in particular) racing against older horses, more so if carrying over 54kg. This principle is most important early in the season, from August to February. (Betting against highly weighted but falsely priced 3yo's early in the season was my acquaintance's favourite strategy.)
  • Conversely, any 3yo carrying a heavy weight, who is able to beat the older runners, becomes a big chance if it returns to 3yo company, or drops 2kg to 3kg in weight in a slightly higher grade.
  • Be wary of any runner carrying more than weight-for-age in a low-grade handicap.
  • Give consideration to every runner down in class from the previous start. A race just one class lower may give the runner a 2length improvement and move it into placegetter contention.
  • A move from a city or provincial track to a country track can result in a 10-length improvement. The previous beaten margin may well be irrelevant. Be ready for this. Horses which finish many lengths from the winner at one track often show excellent form against lower-grade opposition.
  • Give plenty of consideration to any runner with very few starts. They often improve up to 6 or 7 lengths from one start to the next. Be ready for that marked improvement. Keep an eye on debut race starters.
  • You can usually forget about the runner who has had many runs in lower-grade races for perhaps one or two wins (but maybe lots of placings). They have had their opportunity to move up the grades and are, generally, long-term losers.
  • Keep an eye on the starting price from the past couple of runs in similar company. They may give you an excellent clue as to a runner's hidden ability which may have been evident in trackwork. Short price last run or two, consider strongly; over 20/1, probably forget the runner.
  • A change in barrier position, from wide out to an inside barrier, may help bring about significant improvement, particularly for on-pace runners. Be wary of any runner coming out of a 20-plus barrier, especially on dry tracks. Most horses with limited ability do not need a wide barrier to contend with.
  • Watch for a change from wet to dry tracks and vice versa. A significant improvement may be in the offing. Identify the surface on which your runner performs best. Bet on heavy tracks only when you are certain your selection will handle the going.
  • Be wary of a major change in distance from last start, either up or down. On a country track, any runner going up more than 300m or down more than 200m should be considered a high-risk conveyance.
  • Watch out for a change of jockey. A jockey perceived to have more ability than the previous rider, or where the regular jockey appears to have the choice of more than one ride in the race, may provide a good lead.
  • Keep an eye out for horses who seem to show good form at today's track, and maybe only this track. A return to racing at a runner's home (training) track often results in a sudden improvement in form.
  • Once a horse has had six or seven runs from a spell, there has to be doubts about possible overnight improvement from poor form.

The above points may appear a bit complicated, but I've found that in the lower-grade races, once you apply the general commonsense of the principles, and are able to visualise the big picture of the race, you're left with probably three or four standout chances to consider in greater depth.

Quite often, you'll find some relatively long-priced runners among your choices. They are ideal for win, place or eachway betting, or to throw into your exotics. The large quinella and trifecta dividends at country meetings also are well worth the chase.

The above principles may just help you find winners in what appear, initially, to be very difficult races.
By Barry Meyer