In racing, what does the average punter possess that will help him, or her, predict the future? The past, that's what. The 'past' is the main key to opening that door to the future. Without the past - all the details of performances and so on - we are more or less lost.

Sometimes we place too much reliance on what has already happened. The past fails us. Or, rather, the horses involved in that past fail us!

It can be galling to study the past and then believe you have solved the problem of the future, only to see a horse make a complete fool of you and what happened before.

Sometimes, though, we can gain a good idea of what might be reasonably expected to happen in the future by studying not individual horses but overall percentages.

My own recent studies of some 5000 races showed that 77.5 per cent of winners came from the top 6 in the tipsters' poll on raceday. Around 84 per cent of winners were in the first 6 in the pre-post betting market. (In the final market, the SP, 86 per cent of winners were in the top 6.)

Around 3,400 of the winners had their last start within the previous 14 days. All up, just over 90 per cent of the winners had run their last race in the previous four weeks. Interestingly, too, more than 3600 of the winners had finished 1st, 2nd or 3rd in at least one of their last two starts.

These few examples of 'past percentages' give you an idea how you can adopt an approach of using them to your advantage. For example, that figure of 86 per cent of winners being in the first 6 in the betting could well be the cornerstone of a betting system.

I know a few professional punters who are virtual slaves to such statistics. One of them spent some time in California and picked up the statistics 'bug' over there. American bettors are fanatical about statistics; not so Australians, who take a more emotional and individual approach to selection.

Professionals and amateurs often hold very different ideas on form analysis. The amateur will spend a lot of time studying facts and figures which have little or no bearing on the outcome of a race. Thus, wasted effort.

The professional reaches a decision in half the time. The reason is that he knows, through many years of experience, what to consider and what to discard. He is aware of the vital cogs in the formlines. He's not confused by a mass of data; he knows which pieces are important and which can take a far lesser priority.

One of my friends, who has made a living from racing for the last three years, has his computer programmed to look only at certain aspects of form. He downloads the fields and form, then his handicapping program takes over and in a flash has gone through the form in exactly the manner my friend wants it assessed.

Instead of hours and hours of work, he has his study done for him. He can then start to use his own judgment on the horses the computer has told him fit his requirements for being considered as chances in a race.

It's the professional's ability to sort the 'wheat from the chaff', and to know what is of relative importance, that not only simplifies his task but enables him to make a profit where the amateur fails.

Many amateurs cannot resist delving into every race on the card. In contrast, the professional will not give a moment's thought to those races he considers bad betting propositions. He'll throw them out immediately as unbeatable.

He's fully aware, too, that only certain races in each horse's past form will require his study. Many amateurs will agonise over performances which should not be given a second glance.

What is the professional's first step? He'll consider the field as a 'whole' and get to work to quickly eliminate any runners he knows, for some reason or another, have no chance of winning. The second step is to investigate the claims of each horse he has kept in.

He discards all races in each runner's form which not only contribute nothing to his analysis but would serve to only confuse things.

The decks are now cleared for some intensive study. Try the exercise yourself: First, throw out all those races which look too hard, or are comprised of poor-class runners.

Then eliminate the impossible-to-win runners. Then go over the form of the remaining chances and strike out every race where the horse was decisively beaten. When you've completed this process, you'll see that the race has taken a new and different appearance.

The form has been stripped to the essentials. Non-productive and confusing data has been erased. Only the good efforts of each horse remain to be considered.

From this point, the work of comparing individual ability becomes a much easier task. Now, in suggesting all this, I am not saying it's an easy job for rank and file punters to eliminate various performances from examination. Professionals might find it easy; not so the amateur.

You can't throw out every 'bad' performance. Many factors must be considered. The trick is to learn which races have no legitimate place in the horse's form chart so far as comparative handicapping is concerned.

Look for the 'conditioning' race where the horse is not expected to win. Ignore these races and don't be influenced by the fact that the horse may have performed 'poorly'.

Remember, too, that if a horse is dropping in class, it may well pay to examine exactly how he went in the higher grade at his last start.

How do you assess the 'class' of each runner? You need a clear understanding of the horse's past performances. Try to determine a basic class where the horse has performed well. Classifications of races are pretty well exposed these days so even the rank amateur should have little problem in understanding the class value of each runner.

Remember, then, that your form study is all about being POSITIVE. You need to examine each selected runner's strengths, its good performances, its class - and to your task is to compare each runner.

How does one runner's positive points compare with those of its rivals? Use the power of your mind to make the vital judgments. Always be positive and always have faith in your own ability to make the decisions that matter. You won't always be right. Your aim should be to be right more times than you're wrong.

The pruning of past performances is an art that can be quickly acquired by any form student.

Try it out. I think you'll soon get the hang of this professional approach. It'll pay off, believe me.

At the very least, it will curb any tendency you may have to overbet. It will help you cut down 'wasted' time spent on looking at aspects of form that don't warrant your attention.

By Jon Hudson