Jon Hudson probes racing's cash mentality.

I'm one of those punters who thoroughly enjoys the knockabout gregariousness of the racetrack, in contrast to some serious punters who are loners and hate to talk to anyone else when they are concentrating on their betting.

My idea of a great day is to enjoy the company of betting friends, to laugh at their jokes, and to listen to their stories of luck and bad luck. I tell much the same stories as well!

One thing I have noticed over the years is the tendency for the subject of 'bet size' to crop up time and again. It is, I believe, the inevitable issue that will emerge whenever punters get together. How much to bet? Why did I bet so little on such a great winner? Why did I bet so much on that confounded loser? Why can't I be more courageous and put more money on the horses I like?

Betting is all about confidence. Not only in the selections you bet but confidence in yourself. It's also about individuality. Each bettor is different. Each bettor has what I call a 'choking point'- the point he reaches when his fear is at odds with the size of his bet.

In other words, a sensible punter will not allow himself to drift into a financial area where he is betting too much for his own personal psyche to cope with. Unfortunately, some punters do try to bet in amounts that are too large; the effect of this is that they 'choke' and their judgement is negatively affected.

Joe The Punter might well be happy and comfortable betting in $10 units, but when he decides to bet in $50 units, he goes beyond the choking point. He becomes a little concerned at the size of the bet. He wonders if he can really afford it. He thinks how mad he will be with himself if the bet loses. He tries to tell himself that he should stick with the lower bet.

Sometimes, the punter will win the battle with himself. He will not be tempted to stray outside his comfort zone. Often, sadly, he will step into the no-man's land, with eventually disastrous results.

In his book The Winning Horseplayer, the noted US professional punter Andy Beyer tells the story of a $2 bettor who always dreamed of directing all his intelligence and energy into becoming a full-time professional punter. He asked himself the question: Am I good enough to beat the races?

After surviving a violent robbery, the man decided to chase his dream. He lived a spartan existence for some time until he had amassed $2000 for his betting capital. He quit his job at a nursing home to take on his new career.

As Beyer tells it, the man cracked under the financial pressure. He plunged on a horse which lost by a nose. He then began to feel uneasy. Suddenly, he realised that if he lost his entire bankroll he would be out on the street, jobless.

A few days later he made his second bet, and it lost again in a tight finish. The man collapsed in a heap. He practically became a manic depressive. He realised he did not possess the necessary makeup to become a fulltime punter. With what remained of his $2000 he enrolled for a college course and reverted to being a $2 punter.

This man, then, like others before him, had entered the full-time betting arena armed with a lot of wishful thinking, but not much else, and certainly not with the mental toughness to survive the daily rigours of heavy betting. While he felt comfortable and confident betting in $2 units, when he upped the ante and then had to rely on the outcomes for his survival, he discovered he wasn't the man he thought he was.

Says Beyer: "Not everyone is equipped to beat the races even with an all-out effort. The complexities of the sport make it a tough game, and the mathematics of the pari-mutuel (tote) system makes it the toughest game in the world."

From my own observations, and I think my belief is backed up by other serious professionals, it seems that punters with serious academic background tend to do well as professional punters. I know one man whose knowledge of racing is limited, yet he makes a healthy living backing tote oi,,erliys.

He told me: "I don't need to know anything about horses. This is a numbers gime. I just back the runners who are paying over the odds. Simple as that. I win all the time."

The academics have it over the ordinary punter in that they come from a background in which they are accustomed to study, and to mastering any subject. With racing, and form, they can bring to bear all their knowledge of mathematics and probabilities. They will be more likely to be iware of the 'edge' that's required if a punter is to make it long-term with his betting.

Serious students of racing must be prepared to immerse themselves in all aspects of form. They should buy the Sportsman, the Sporting Globe, the racing magazines, the best daily newspaper formguides, and they should, if they can afford it, subscribe to a reputable ratings service (like that of George Tafe).

But most importintly a punter must be (a) confident he can win over a 12month period, (b) satisfied he has enough money to pursue his betting dreams, and (c) aware of his own strengths and frailties as a human being.

Says Andy Beyer: "(The bettor) must develop the capacity, in the face of tremendous stress, to maintain his emotional balance and especially to prevent bad luck from affecting his judgement. This does not come naturally for anyone, but a gambler must realise that his emotions are his own worst enemy and that they can undermine all his handicapping and betting skills."

Beyer's words should be heeded, even by the part-time punter who might bet at the TAB or attend the races just to enjoy himself. Bet-size is a vital ingredient of any punter's approach.

The other week I was at the Randwick races with a couple of friends, and l was introduced to a third chap, who admitted he was but a $10 punter. He seemed happy enough through the early part of the afternoon, and then he struck a 20/1 winner.

From being what seemed a humble, quiet type, this chap suddenly transformed into a know-it-all, swaggering smart alec. In the space of one race, he had changed his personality. The winner had provided him with a surge of super-confidence.

From being a contented $10 punter, the man stiddenlybegan increasing his bets considerably. "I'm having 50 on the favourite,'' he declared. The favourite was an even money chance and by my reckoning was well under the odds. I said to him that he had just won nicely on a longshot, why was he backing a hot favourite?

The man replied that he wouldn't bet $50 on a longshot, but a favourite was another matter. So on went the $50 and the favourite lost. I could see the confidence begin - only begin, mark you - to slip from his face. But he shouldered up again with another $50 bet, again on a well-fancied candidate. Again it lost.

In the space of two races, then, the man had learned a salutary lesson. By upping his bets 400 per cent, he had put his judgement completely out of kilter. He was backing horses he would never have dreamed of backing with $10.

The man then admitted he had been stupid. He had never before put $50 on a horse and he doubted if he ever would again. I congratulated him on such a wise instant decision.

Beyer relates a similar story in The Winning Horseplayer. A professional punter friend of his, Pete Axhelm, once saw a newcomer to the track who picked up a sizeable daily doubles dividend. The novice exclaimed that betting was an easy game and wondered aloud 'how long has this been going on!'

Another professional standingnearby witnessed the young man's explosion of joy and optimism, and told him: " Have a good life, kid." From that day on, says Beyer, the kid was known as Good Life and he was last seen in the remote corners of the Aqueduct racecourse grandstand trying to scrounge the price of a bet before he vanished from the track altogether.

The moral of the tale, then, is never to get too brashly over-confident, never to bet with scared money (money you cannot afford to lose) and never to exceed a bet-size that you can comfortably deal with in your own mind.

Now, I have been punting for many years and I have placed some large bets in my time - and yet I am the first to admit that I have a choking point. I know when it is likely that I am going to start feeling uneasy.

Some years ago, a friend and myself used a progression staking system that called for larger and larger bets. When the progression reached a certain point - and that time it called for a $150 bet I reneged. I told my friend that things were getting ridiculous and that although I had the money I wasn't happy betting that amount of money.

We both saw sense and ended the progression there and then. (Good job we did, as the losing run continued for another six losses!)

Now I know my limit. To be honest, I am happy enough betting around the $400 to $500 mark, but after that I sense that my judgement will be affected. I will think twice about horses, I will tend to sway away from the horses I normally would bet, and be lured into horses at shorter prices.

Test yourself out. Put $100 on the table and tell yourself you are going to put it on one horse that day. Then try to pick the horse you would bet. It's pounds to peanuts you will be psyched out of betting any value runners. Instead, you will end up choosing a very short-priced favourite!

Probably a horse you would never have chosen had you had $10 in front of you instead of $100.

By Jon Hudson