Exclusive extracts from the US ‘Today’s Racing Digest’

Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes probably would have been great handicappers. The two most famous recluses of the twentieth century may have been driven by anti-social demons but all that time by themselves would have allowed them to work out those tricky handicapping puzzles without being undermined by the opinions of others.

If your goal is to become a successful investor at the track, one of the most-important lessons to be learned is to believe in yourself and YOUR opinions over all others.

The local newspapers have selections, your formguide is full of them, and there are scads of others who are happy to peddle their analysis for a price. There's nothing wrong with this – it’s just business.

The majority of people who go to the races regularly are not really interested in the process of picking winners. They are interested in making money and they don't give a hoot how they do it.

However, this publication is dedicated to those of you who truly want to succeed at the game on your own merits. In order to do so, you need to develop an independent thinking process and then put it into play at post time.

Most serious players have no difficulty locking themselves into a room for a couple of hours of hardcore handicapping. They analyse the chances of each entrant, project how the race will be run and, some, even compile an accurate betting line that should tell them when a horse offers the proper value to be worth a play.

They retire for the evening with a good idea of what they think will happen, which events look playable and which should be ignored.

Then they get up in the morning. They check out the newspaper to see how their tipsters see the day's races. They read the editorial stuff and they get more opinions from other public prognosticators.

They go to the track and talk to their handicapping friends. They overhear someone who has talked to a certain trainer who thinks his horse can't lose the fourth. Suddenly, they have five or six different opinions crowding their memory bank and, often, the first horse to be tossed out is the one they loved the previous night.

You know the rest - their $22-plus winner rolls home and they haven't got a dime on it, even though they had the horse as a legitimate 4/1 shot on their betting line.

It's perfectly okay to seek out information from a wide variety of sources, so long as it helps you make an intelligent decision on how to approach any given race. However, when it comes time to make your major plays for the day, they should be YOUR plays.

This can become very difficult if you attend the races with other good handicappers, especially if you happen to believe them to be more successful than you are, in the long term.

Example: You've made your top selection 5/2 in a certain race and it's going off at 5/1. However, your well-respected colleague is in love with something else that you made 5/1 and is holding at 7/2 on the board.

He goes off to bet and you become torn to smithereens over whether he's right and you're wrong. It's essential, however, that you stand firm and make YOUR play. If you lose and your mate wins, don't go into a deep funk.

Instead, discuss the race with him afterwards and try to learn what he saw that you didn't. Perhaps there's something to be learned here that you can profit from down the road. Perhaps you'll come away feeling you made the right play, even though it lost.

Many people find the written word particularly difficult to ignore. There it is in black and white, it must be true.

A certain newspaper tipster is strong on the 6/4 favourite, writes a sentence saying why this horse "should" win and goes on to the next race. It all sounds so convincing that you think betting your 8/1 overlay is a waste of money.

Mentally, media pundits come in all shapes and sizes. Some are quite diligent, very honest and sincerely try to do a good job. Others just do it for the money. Some bet their own money, others don't.

However, the vast majority believe it their job to try to pick the "most likely" winner of the race and are "logical" to the hilt. I once heard one of these individuals on a radio talk show who said it was his job to pick the favourite for the good of the public rather than put his true choice on top.

One thing for sure, taking an "obvious" approach is a one-way street to financial failure.

However, these tipsters can serve a useful purpose. After I handicap a race, I like to see how my contenders stack up selection-wise in both my local newspaper and in the major formguides.

If we agree, I generally figure the race to be unplayable because my thought process was either too logical or the race is simply too obvious to be bet. However, if my top contender is well down the list (or not mentioned at all), I tend to get excited.

With very few exceptions, public handicappers will generally mirror the thinking of the "common man", which can point out probable underlays even more accurately than the programme's morning line odds.

The lesson to be learned here is that anyone who has read this far has what it takes to be a newspaper tipster. That makes YOUR opinion as good as any you may read anywhere. If you learn from your mistakes and don't repeat them, you will eventually become a winning player. Believe it.

Although animal rights' groups may take offence at the analogy, there are many ways to skin a cat at the track.

Traditional handicapping where the player compares strengths/ weaknesses in various categories between entrants is fine. Occasionally, using these time-honoured concepts will even turn up a good overlay.

Every decent handicapper comes across a "Big Find" every so often a horse that just seems like it's going to win, does so, and pays a nice price. It's just not always that easy.

My guess is that only about 40 per cent of the races offered around the country on any given day can actually be handicapped. Some are too hard, others are too easy.

A good handicapper should be able to correctly pick about 33 per cent of those races, but those winners will often be the favourite or a short-priced second choice yielding underlay results.

It takes true patience and self-control to wait around for horses like Big Find, and then courage to back them with the conviction required to make all the waiting worthwhile.

There are still a few pros around, but not many, who can sit on their hands all day at the track and pass all the marry races offered.

"Action" drives the rest of us, for better or worse.

Employing handicapping angles isn't a bad way to go should traditional methods lead you into a blind alley. The best time to pull out the angles is when you have no strong opinion in a race other than the favourite looking "false" or "vulnerable".

Keeping in mind that angles should only be used when the price is right (6/1 or more is a good guideline), here are some of my favourites:

Look for horses that have MULTIPLE wins at today's track AND today's distance. Any runner that has posted a 15 per cent success rate over its career in both categories can be dangerous, no matter what its current form.

Some horses simply have a way of confounding the wagering public while running best when least expected and vice-versa.

A runner with two longshot wins in its current PPs qualifies. I use 6/1 or higher as my criterion for a longshot.

It's no secret that the majority of horses tend to begin positive form cycles from their third to sixth start following a layoff of 45 days or more. The shorter the rest, the quicker they may be ready to pop.

Look for signs of improvement in the most recent races (early speed or a good finish) combined with a distance /surface switch and, perhaps, a class drop to seal the deal.

Angles like these simply give action-seeking handicappers an effective way to kill time between their "Big Finds". Investments should be kept minimal, but sometimes they return maximum type results.

Most punters are amateurs, even everyday players who can claim a year-end profit more often than not, and most should remain amateurs because the game is difficult, requires full-time effort and will land you in the cuckoo's nest if you give it a chance.

Besides, it's highly unlikely you will become rich as a professional horse-player. You may hammer out a decent living but you won't be challenging anyone for a spot on the Forbes 500, no matter how good you might be. The financial downside and the potential for screwing-up are simply too high.

These are the reasons why most high-profile, public tipsters maintain racing-related day jobs. It's just much easier to play the game WITH a net, rather than WITHOUT one.

In this highly-charged financial world that we live in, there are simply easier ways to become wealthy than by playing the horses. Some of them are even legal.

Still, the dreams of the everyday horse-player are often difficult to dismiss. just as the unhappy housewife hopes that rich prince will swing by and take her away from it all, the typical handicapper longs for the chance to quit that dead-end job and play the horses every day.

It's okay to dream but unless you can honestly meet the following criteria, you better keep your day job, too.

  1. You "invest" and don't "gamble". Two people may bet on the same horse but one is investing while the other is gambling. The difference is simple - one person knows why the bet is being made and the other doesn't. Simple as that.

    The professional treats racing as a business and the amateur treats it as a game. Being a businessman at the track is lots more work and not nearly as much fun.
  2. You can't run a successful business without proper capitalisation. It requires a sizeable bankroll to play the horses professionally. The proper bankroll allows the player to shrug off defeat and go about his business with a stabilised psyche. How big? That's hard to say.

    Three rules of thumb: (a) Never invest more than 1 per cent of your bankroll on any single play; (b) never invest more than you're comfortable with on any single play; and (c) invest enough so that it hurts when you lose.

    The latter is important because you never want to blow off a loser without returning to see where you went wrong.

    So, if your comfort zone is $100 per race (pretty much a minimum for any serious player), you should start with at least $10,000 in the kitty. Better, yet, you should start with double that amount.
  3. You must be adept at identifying the profitable situations. You simply can't play short-priced horses consistently and expect to beat the game's hefty takeout. The first step in successful handicapping is the cursory review of the race to determine the status of the likely wagering favourites. If the chalk looks solid, pass. If it looks false or vulnerable, you may want to play.
  4. You must avoid temptation. Once a race is determined to lack potential value, you can't start running up to the window at the last minute and making "action" bets, even if they are small.

    This is a dangerous practice and winning one of these wagers can lead to disaster since you may tend to get bolder the next time the situation arises.

    Professionals know which races they are going to pass and which ones they may play before they arrive at the track. In the heat of battle, they stick to their guns and do not let outside influences affect their investments.
  5. Obviously, you must possess solid handicapping skills and techniques.  This may be the easiest criterion of all to fulfil because the racing world is full of good handicappers despite the absence of all that many true winners.
  6. Using these skills, you need to build a case for your potential plays. It's not enough for your pick to have the best speed figures or to be saddled by the leading trainer or ridden by the leading jockey or to appear to be the solo speedster in a race.

    In other words, you need more than one or two reasons to play the horse. Like a homicide detective building a  case against a murder suspect, the more evidence you unearth, the better your chances of getting a conviction.

    What makes it even tougher in this game is that your evidence can't be immediately obvious to the majority of bettors. You've got to dig, man! You've got to be creative. You must zig when the others zag but only at the right time.
  7. You must be able to see the future. How will the race unfold and will it unfold in such a way that is suitable for your horse? Running the race in your head is the most important aspect in solving the handicapping puzzle.

    You won't always be right, of course, but if you don't have a good idea of where your contender is going to be at every call, your chances of winning are small and the bet should not be made.

    This is just as important when betting on a horse at 15/1 as it is with a 2/1 shot.
  8. You must be able to take action and pull the trigger. There are some people who go to the track day-after-day and wait for the perfect situation.

    By the time it finally shows up, they are usually so dazed and confused that they don't recognise it anyway. It's the old "use-it-or-lose-it" situation. In this game, you only need to be right about 30 per cent of the time to succeed, so long as you are applying proper value-oriented techniques.

    To do this, you must have a reliable "betting line" on paper before you go to the track. Most pros employ a 100 per cent value line, meaning if they believe their contender has a true 3/1 chance of winning, they will bet at 6/1 or higher.

    The more radical their handicapping methodology, the more acceptable action they will encounter. A 100 per cent line ensures that they have removed much of the long-term risk from their overall investment strategy.
  9. You MUST keep yourself on an even keel mentally. A bad loss in the second race of the day cannot influence what you do, or do not do, in the third race.
  10. You invest long term and not short term.