In this special article, three of PPM's most popular contributors, Peters Travers, Des Green and Rick Hunter, hold their own 'form seminar' to discuss fresh handicapping angles, and how to come up with angles to join the ‘smarties' who regularly win.

Each contributor's comments is prefixed by their initials.

D.G.: As far as I'm concerned, it should go without saying that to beat the races you have to beat the odds. If you persistently take skinny odds you're on a slow boat to China-and we all know they don't have racing over there.

P.T.: The problem, Des, is that punters in the past few years have been finding it increasingly difficult to obtain fair odds from the bookies. At the Sydney tracks, most are betting to books of 116 to 120 per cent, and up in Brisbane you're looking at a 125 per cent book, and if you venture to somewhere like Caloundra or the Gold Coast your average book on a race is a crazy 135 per cent Where's the value?

R.H.: The average punter should probably be looking towards the more exotic forms of betting to reap in the dough. The trifecta pools are always healthy and any astute punter should be able to plunder them with multiples.

D.G.: Well, we know you're on to that lurk, old son. And good luck to you. I agree that the punter with small change should be pushing his money into trifectas, trebles, quartets, quadrellas, that sort of thing, because these pools possibly represent the only value left, not that you'll get value all the time. The doubles pools can offer big rewards.

R.H.: Not all the time. Our esteemed colleague Brian Blackwell landed an Extra Double on the Queensland TAB recently, with a 2311 winner in the first leg and a 14/1 winner in the second leg, and it paid only 134/1. Not much value there. It should have paid around  350/1. There's probably a lesson here for punters in that expected doubles divvies on minor meetings may well fall short, due to low pools. Brian's bet was on a meeting at Naracoorte.

D.G.: Blimey, what's the boss doing betting on those meetings!

R.H.: He tells me he makes a lot of money on the minor meetings, the reason being that few punters have access to the full form, and therefore can't study the races properly, so there's a lot of fool's gold in the betting pools on the tote. You know the sort of thing, a punter strolls into the TAB, scans the form stuck up on the wall, and then invests $20, invariably losing it. Astute punters cash in on this by accessing the form, as Brian does, and rating each runner accurately.

P.T.: I have always believed very much in the fact that a horse's earnings are a good representation of his ability and inherent 'class' so I pay a lot of attention to this aspect of form. If I'm stumped between choosing one horse from several contenders I usually resort to going back to prizemoney as the final arbiter, with the horse who has earned the most getting the nod. It's been a satisfactory approach for me for a long time.

D.G.: Yes, earnings can be a significant factor; you could also use them to narrow down a field right from the start by considering, say, only the four top-eamers in the race. In fact, a good friend of mine has done this sort of thing quite successfully for a while now. He says it's a handy way to save yourself the trouble of looking at every runner.

P.T.: Sounds a shade risky to me, but I accept the point. There's also the timesaver of considering only those runners which finished 7th or better at their last start. Very few winners come from those horses with 8th or worse at their last start.

R.H.: I read the other day of an American punter, a successful one, who in 52 years bet only one way, and claimed that it never showed a loss in any year. He considered only horses drawn in Barrier 5 in the fifth race. He didn't, though, back each and every horse. He studied the morning newspaper form and when he was sure one of his selections was a sound one he would bet five units on it.

D.G.: I doubt he died a rich man, but you never know. I don't think a severely limited mechanical approach like this one could pay off over a long period, unless the punter was an absolute wizard and could pick and choose his bets with great accuracy; which I somehow doubt. Mechanical systems are fine, I believe in them, but they must have a rationality to them, and be based on firm principles of form.

PT.: A professional punter friend told me recently that he was at one time limiting himself to what he termed 'strong bets', which were horses he had picked out as top-class bets, based on form and condition and class and so on, but what he discovered, after some time, was that these were the very horses he was NOT making money on! He found they were dragging his profits back, and his profits were coming from exotic bets-his quinellas, trifectas and doubles. What he was doing was pouring three-quarters of his stake into the main chance, and limiting himself to a quarter of the stake on the exotics. Yet when the figures were lined up, he found he was wasting the three quarters bets, and the remaining quarter was making all the money. He changed his approach completely, and now bets only on exotics.

D.G.: It's been my belief for a long time that even professional punters rely on a few BIG wins in a year to get them out on top. One has the impression of pro punters being men, or women, who continually come out winning, but it's not the case at all. There's a bloke I know who lives off punting, but he is often thousands of dollars in arrears after nine months of a season, and yet he still manages to get his nose in front by virtue of landing a few really big goes. It's a risky business.

R.H.: In other words, it doesn't matter how many winners you back as long as you make a profit. It's not much use having a 30 per cent strike rate if they're all at 614 or evens. Your approach to any race should be along the lines of 'how can I make a real killing here? 'If you have strong opinions, and you should have. you should stick to them, even if it means going completely against almost everyone else. Each race, I believe, has to be approached on the lines of turning it into a bonanza. But you only bet when you're sure, not half sure. That's the hardest part, knowing when to bet and when to stay out.

PT.: This is where exotic bets come in, because if you fancy a 20/1 shot you have the opportunity to milk it all he way by coupling it up in quinellas, trifectas and doubles. In this way you can leverage your way into some big bikkies. You have your regular win and place bet, but you go for broke by landing the exotics.

D.G.: I think you should always try to hedge your bets. Insurance is the name of the game. No matter how convinced you are of success, you must account for all the things that can go wrong, and for the fact that there's a good chance your opinion will be wrong. So, if you have a standout bet, for goodness sake, play some savers on the other strong chances in the race. It might lower your return a bit, but you'll have peace of mind should your horse stumble at the start, get severely inconvenienced, or just run below what you expect.

PT.: I recall some time back, when I was more inexperienced, I bet $400 on a horse, and it was one of only two in the race who really had a chance. My horse ran second, but the other horse won the race at 611. If I had only taken a $50 saver bet I could have covered almost all of the bet. That's a plus for having a saver or two. You just never know when the savers are going to save your bacon.

D.G.: Yes. I think we have to emphasis the fact that there's nothing wrong in using a certain amount of your capital to protect yourself, but at the same time you must never lose sight of the real object of proceedings, which is to win a large amount of money if possible.

R.H.: This brings me to another point: A lot of punters believe in level stakes betting, and this is all very well, but is it really practicable, given that each and every race is a different situation, and some horses have better prospects than others? Mat I mean is, one race you like a 211 chance, but in the next you like a 10/1 chance, but you don't fancy its chance as much as you did the 2/1 chance in the previous race. Why should you, then, bet the same amount on each. Surely one calls for a bigger bet than the other?

P.T.: The basis of all good management in your betting is to find some correct proportion between bets. Bet the most when you have the strongest opinion on a horse. Funnily enough, a lot of punters don't do this. They bet more on the roughies than on the hotter horses. How many times have you come home from the track and found that your best bet of the day had carried one of your smallest bets?

R.H.: If we revert back now to actual selection, I'd like to say that any punter must be willing to do a bit of work. You have to find a way to isolate the main chances. This is easily done by pinpointing pre-race favourites, No. 1 tipsters' polls horses, and those horses rated on top by the computer experts in publications like the Sportsman, or Wizard. These at least give you a starting point. But with any newspaper tipster you have to remember that he is going to be right only about 25 per cent of the time at most. That means three times out of four he is going to be wrong. The same with favourites-seven out of 10 will lose, which sort of makes out a case for ignoring them doesn't it!

D.G.: I'm going to be a bit controversial by saying exactly that: When you study form, throw out the favourite for a start. You don't need him. Throw out the second favourite, too. Now you've got rid of the low-value horses, you can concentrate on finding the improvers who are likely to be at value odds. I think punters spend far too much time worrying about favourites, when they should be looking for friendly bets among the competition. Let's face it, backing favourites is basically a dead-end street. They fool us all the time, and they let us down more times than they cheer us up.

P.T: I think it was Robert S. Dowst, the great American punter, who said that the best bets in racing are those horses that have won at least a third of their races and which have finished 'in the money' at least 60 per cent of the time. These horses could probably show a much better return on winnings than straight-out favourites, especially if you apply other form factors designed to eliminate those with very little chance.

R.H.: Dowst had a lot of good thoughts about handicapping. One of the points he made, quite correctly, is that to bet horses also taken by a majority of other punters is to accept very short prices. It's a fact that horses widely tipped in newspapers and on the radio go to the post overbet in relation to their real chance, and they'll lose 60 to 70 per cent of the time. The tipsters kill the odds and they are responsible for a lot of false favourites.

PT.: If I had to name one major factor of utmost importance to all punters, as regards form, it would be the one relating to recent form; I strongly believe that the form you rely on is recent form.

R.H.: My soundest advice relates to trainer-jockey combinations. I believe in 'hot' combos, so when you are looking for 'key' horses around which you can formulate your opinion on a race, look for the best trainer jockey combinations for a start, then begin your analysis. Good trainers and good jockeys keep on winning; remember that.

D.G.: I maintain that an adventurous spirit is needed if a small punter is to have any chance of winning long-term. He'll get nowhere following the herd. He has to be right when the herd is wrong. My point is that punters have to find the improving horses, the ones that have finished 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th, last time out, not beaten much, who are now ready to win over a suitable distance, from a suitable barrier. It's these type of horses who will provide the punter with the wins and the value he needs to be a winner over an extended period of play.

By Peter Travers, Rick Hunter and Des Green