Most professional punters, whether in Australia or overseas, are very likely to emphasise the need to “be different” in your betting approach.

“Follow the crowd and you’ll lose just like they do,” says Tom Priestley, a Chicago bettor from the 50s. Priestley would have known. He maintained a profitable punting career for some 35 years until his premature death at 56. (Probably a dicky heart!)

UK analyst Jon Gibby, author of the excellent book Betting On Flat Handicaps, has much to say on this topic. Here’s a question and answer session with Gibby in which he expounds on his selection and betting techniques.

MARTIN DOWLING (MD): I note that in your book you go to great lengths to point out that even picking as many winners as possible is no guarantee of long-term success. Can you tell us more about this?

JON GIBBY (JG):  Most punters mistakenly believe that the way to succeed at gambling is to pick as many winners as possible, and this desire to win in the short-term adversely affects their chance of realising a decent profit over the course of a season. To succeed at this game you have to think in terms of odds and chances and understand that if you consistently back horses at odds lower than their true chance of winning you will lose, irrespective of the number of winners you achieve.

MD: Do you think punters have an inability to deal with losers?

JG:  Yes. This need for the security of winners means they are too quick to reject methods that do not select a good proportion of successful bets, irrespective of how profitable they might be over time. It also means they look for the obvious contenders in a race, the ones with the best recent form that figure prominently in the betting market.

MD: Agreed, this is a common failing, but it’s hard to woo punters away from the best formline runners in a race. I guess what you are stressing is the importance of good-priced winners, and not how many you might pick at odds which are less than value?

JG: I find any approach that targets short-priced favourites unadventurous and rather sterile. I can’t get excited about a 5/4 winner that, after all, will cover little more than my next losing bet, and any progress towards worthwhile profits is usually characterised by a rather unappealing steady plod.

MD: Punters, I suggest, fear losing more than anything else, which makes most of them cautious.

JG: Most of us have an in-built fear of losing and it can be hard to force yourself to bet when you know there is a good chance the horse will lose, irrespective of whether its winning chance is considerably better than its long odds suggest.

This is a weakness that I am still struggling to overcome and I’ve missed out on some huge-priced winners as a result. Yes, I have also saved myself a lot of losers but I know that the winners I have missed would easily have compensated for them.

MD: How do you find an approach that finds those elusive value outsiders?

JG: You need an approach that is not only based on sound and logical footings but is also different to the methods used by the majority of other people. According to the Racing Post, after 6,223 races the tipsters involved in their tipping challenge had picked the favourite 47 per cent of the time.

Interestingly, despite the fact that their average winning strike rate was a respectable 26 per cent, not one of them looked like showing a profit. The result of another tipping contest the Racing Post’s 2000 Naps Competition is a good example of how adopting a different approach to the majority of punters can pay dividends.

The competition, won by Raceform’s Mark Nelson, demonstrated how important big prices are in the long-term when it comes to maximising profits. He ran out a clear winner having selected several outstanding handicap winners such as Lady Boxer 50-1, Premier Baron 33-1, Chorus 20-1 and Muddy Water 16-1 to name but four, despite having one of the worst overall strike rates and suffering a run of 16 losers at one stage; tolerating a much higher percentage of losers than most punters would find acceptable. Mark Nelson’s belief was that his strategy of backing horses at big prices in handicaps (the average odds of his winners was 5.8 to 1), would pay off over the course of the season. He was proven to be right.

MD: What about your own performance?

JG: I believe that the only reason I was able to make a level stakes’ profit of 134 points during a recent Flat season was that I adopted an approach that concentrated on outsiders in handicaps. Like Mark Nelson, I was prepared to accept a high proportion of losers, but the big-priced winners I was able to find more than compensated for them. Of course it is not easy to identify an outsider with an obvious chance of winning because the bookmakers are seldom that generous! Outsiders rarely have everything in their favour and usually there are one or two question marks about their overall or recent form, which can be off-putting. Such doubts, however superficial, can trouble the conservative side of one’s nature and it can be a struggle to see beyond them.

MD: And your advice for punters facing this dilemma in their every day betting?

JG: Well, it is one thing to be able to think differently to other punters and quite another to act differently! An unwillingness to place a speculative bet on a horse, even when you feel sure that the available odds will more than compensate for the level of risk involved, will be the stumbling block you are most likely to have difficulty overcoming.

To highlight value outsiders, you need an approach that is not only based on sound and logical footings but is also different to the methods used by the majority of other people. When I studied the methods employed by most British tipsters and racing commentators, I found that, notable exceptions apart, the majority placed the most emphasis on the same factors such as good recent form, final time ratings, how horses are weighted in relation to each other and trainers and jockeys.

I identified several shortcomings in their methods. Of course the fundamental weakness was that they were making very similar selections and they were accepting short odds as a result, but I also concluded that one of their basic beliefs was flawed.

MD: Well, this sounds interesting, tell us about it.

JG: The accepted way to comprehend and quantify form in Britain is centred on the premise that it is possible to measure the ability of horses and that those differences in ability can be expressed in pounds. The idea is logical enough. If you have one horse that is faster than another, you should be able to negate the difference between them by putting more weight on the back of the faster horse to slow it down.

If it takes 20lb of weight to bring their abilities together then the faster horse can justifiably be described as being 20lb better than the slower horse. The logical extension of this theory is that if the faster horse only has to concede 15lb to the slower horse it will beat it every time, but if it has to concede 25 pounds it will lose. This logic has led to the widely held belief that a horse’s chance in a handicap race is determined by how much weight it is carrying in relation to its rivals.

Although there is no doubt that weight has an influence on the outcome of races, its impact has been exaggerated and is not as important as the majority of punters consider it to be. If races took place under laboratory-style conditions I am sure that weight would have the effect it is supposed to, but in reality there are other equally important factors influencing a horse’s performance and the theory is regularly undone by them.

MD: Quite a few analysts have come to the same conclusion, not that I personally agree 100 per cent with them. I still maintain that weight rules as far as racing is concerned.  I have often heard speed fanatics say that a selection lost because it had to concede too much weight, and I take pleasure in pointing out to them that they have been claiming that weight doesn’t matter!

JG: Back in 1992, Nick Mordin suggested that punters should ignore weight and the method for producing speed figures that he espoused in Betting For a Living deliberately made no mention of it. Although his advice was largely ignored, of late there has been a noticeable reappraisal of the impact of weight and how it affects the accuracy of ratings that incorporate it.

MD: What about form, and what can the average punter do about it when assessing a race. It obviously holds the clues to all the winners somewhere in its labyrinthine darkness!

JG: During its racing career a handicapper will inevitably produce poor performances, moderate performances and good performances and will attract very different ratings for them. The horse’s actual ability can only be measured on those occasions when it produces its best. Its other performances are meaningless as a guide to its capabilities, other than to confirm dislikes and limitations. Although this is obvious enough, too many punters waste their time using past results and literal interpretations of who beat who and the distances and weights involved to determine how well handicapped horses are in relation to each other. More often than not the difference between two runners on the day can be explained by the fact that horse A was more favoured by the run of the race, the prevailing conditions and/or the track biases.

MD: So what you are saying is that attempts to use a formline approach are flawed. We can’t really say this or that was a potent formline?

JG: The use of collateral form as a tool with which to interpret handicaps simply compounds the error manifest in the above approach by adding another link to an already flimsy chain. Anybody advocating its use, or heard to utter the words “on a line through . . .” when referring to handicap form deserves to be ridiculed!

The theory suggests that if horse A has run against horse B and horse B has run against horse C then it is possible to determine the outcome of a contest between horse A and horse C. The belief is that by taking into account the distances between A and B and B and C, the weights each horse carried and the weights B and C are set to carry, it is possible to determine which of the two horses is better handicapped.

Again, under laboratory-type conditions the theory might just work but there are simply too many factors influencing how each horse performed, particularly from one race to another, for it to work in practice.

MD: I’d tend to disagree with you on this one, because I believe that such thinking has to be adopted in order to get a clear picture of a race and its runners. Comparisons need to be made.

JG: I believe that the logical way to determine how well handicapped horses are in relation to each other is to decide how well treated each horse is in isolation, rather than drawing dubious conclusions from their past meetings or from meetings between them and a third horse.

MD: What’s your overall view of the way punters operate then? You are obviously critical.

JG: British writers such as Nick Mordin and professional gambler Alan Potts have drawn on the works of the Americans for much of their inspiration, but despite their best efforts to educate the long-suffering punters in the UK, the majority remain uncomfortably tied to their systematic methods and unshakable beliefs.

In his book Fast Tracks to Thoroughbred Profits, the American writer Mark Cramer took this idea a stage further. He introduced his concept of opposite logics to show that there is no right or wrong way to approach form study, and that in fact methods commonly held to be “wrong” often present value opportunities simply because they are ignored by the majority of people.

He argued that there is no permanent right way because the betting market will in time inevitably turn a winning way into a losing one. The Americans have come to recognise that this situation exists and that it calls for a fluidity of approach.

Punters need to be prepared to change tack each time the door closes on one avenue to profits and to understand that there are many logical approaches that can be adopted that are neither inherently right nor wrong. Some will fail because the selections are overbet while others will succeed only because they are overlaid. The bookmakers can close several doors at any one time but there will still be overlays for they cannot cover every angle without betting to grossly unfair over-rounds.

In The Inside Track, Alan Potts proved this very point when he detailed how the betting market had squeezed the profitability of the successful methods he had described in his earlier book Against the Crowd.

Although Potts has successfully made a living from betting for many years, he has been forced to adapt and develop his approach over that time in order to stay ahead of the game. For whatever reason the market was no longer allowing Potts to obtain sufficient value about his selections to realise a profit and he was forced to accept the inevitable that he needed to develop a new approach.

He had no clear idea of what that new approach might be and it was not until after he had read a number of books by some of the US authors that he found a way forward. To succeed you have to be prepared to adapt and evolve your methods to ensure that they remain different to those employed by other punters.

Betting On Flat Handicaps by Jon Gibby is published by Raceform UK. It is available from

Click here to read Part 1.

By Martin Dowling