An academic colleague vaguely interested in horse racing (a rare breed!), asked me if I had heard of a book he was reading about horse racing and written by a psychology professor in America. I usually pride myself on being ahead of the pack in being aware of these sorts of publications but this one, to my chagrin, was completely new!

Not to be outdone, I got one of my daughters to assist her luddite father and one week later the book, purchased via the Internet as no copies could be found in Oz, lobed into my mail box. Despite protestations that it should be “put away” for a Father’s Day present, I countered that this was impeding the pursuit of knowledge and infringed various Geneva rulings. This feeble argument swayed the thinking and the book was given to me.

It is called The Psychology of Thoroughbred Handicapping and is written by Professor Thomas Wilson. He is a professor at a college in Kentucky so can breath racing everyday but is a keen punter himself. Hence this is not just an excellent blending of all the best research into how we make choices but has many practical thoughts based on his own wounds and winners out in the field.

There are some flaws in my view that I will come to but the good parts are well worth the read. For example, he talks about how we assess probability. Mostly when we look at a race without realising it, we often have a tendency to add the chances up, which is wrong. Suppose I work on a race and decided there are three main hopes based on form in recent runs. One I will think is 50 per cent likely to win and the others 20 per cent. This allows 10 per cent for the rest of the field to cause an upset.

Then I note another factor such as the jockey’s or race distance or whatever. On this factor I may think my 50 per cent hope has an advantage that reflects 25 per cent. We then tend to add these two in our minds (not mathematically but unconsciously), to see the horse as being even more certain to win.

This is wrong thinking – but very common unless you are really watchful and aware. To be correct one should multiply the chances i.e. our 50 per cent hope is now 12.5 per cent. Again this should not be strictly calculated but we should be making comparisons that are more cautious as we will try to be too optimistic.

Which is another feature that the book stresses. All the literature on behavioural finance points to us being too optimistic in our decisions and seeking to justify them rather than challenge. I experienced this recently with one of my main bets – Mentality when resuming. I thought his class would be enough. I looked at his first-up form as a glass half full (two wins from four attempts) rather than half empty – he loses 50 per cent of the time first-up. Reviewing him in the enclosure a good judge thought he would need the run.

I shut that advice out: “yes, but he is too good”. Looking at the race with less blinkered eyes could have saved me a loser but my mind was locked. Professor Wilson gives techniques in this book to help break through such a resistance.

On the negative side – as with many American books there are lots of examples of workouts involving speed ratings. These are prolific over there but while some claim to find them useful here I have doubts and have yet to see them used consistently on our variable grass surfaces. Still, if you have mastered the art then this negative for me would be a positive for you.

Another was a chapter on working out maiden races which did not work for me but then I play Saturdays only so again your bent may include maiden races. I once knew a successful punter who only bet maiden races as he figured that he had certain advantages there!

More seriously was the money management section. He gives a lot of thought to bet type and comes up with sensible ideas about key horses if you go for exotics but I still struggle with the basic fact that these bets take out more of the pool so I am further behind the eight ball before I bet. Sound ideas are still there if that is your scene.

I did get concerned with one approach which he seems to throw in for those not wanting to do much work. It runs on favourites and increases the bet over five races until a winner or you stop. Claims that this wins over time may work there but I doubt it. I looked at the last five Saturdays in Sydney and the losses were bad as three days had no winner in the required number of events and as is usual with this type of betting the wins never cover the losses.

Still, this is a unique and useful work overall. It was not unduly expensive. If interested start the process off at www.psyhorse.com or Google the title: HORSES TO FOLLOW.

I thought Sir James would benefit from his first-up handy run. He has won second-up before so may have taken a prize by the time you read this but he can still be followed. Likewise on the same day Angel Girl did enough to suggest a win in Class 6 or thereabouts races. Boncouer won despite looking to benefit so could be very classy.

Watch Hurried Choice and wait for Guillotine. And my long range tip for the Cups is Maybe Better.

Until next month – have fun punting.

By Clive Allcock

PRACTICAL PUNTING – OCTOBER 2007