The one thing that becomes the fear and the bugbear of any betting man's life is the losing streak. This is not just my opinion. Ask anyone who has an interest in trying to make a lot of money from the outlay of a small amount on the outcome of a race involving horses or dogs.

It's the REASON for losing runs that will occupy the attentions of this article. You see, there are two sorts of such worrying streaks ... one is mathematical, the other is psychological.

If you could plan exactly what your win-strike percentage would be, you could mathematically work out your expected longest losing streak. Trouble is, your strike rate will vary, peaking and troughing like a wave on storm-swept seas. One season your strike rate may be 27 per cent, the next it might slump to 15 per cent.

These fluctuating strike rates make it extremely difficult to pinpoint the extent of losing runs, or how often they might occur. Professional punters may tell you to expect the very worst, and to prepare to cope with it. Others, more optimistic and more in the risk-taking mould, will say forget about losing runs, just get on with the job.

The majority of bettors, though, come from more cautious stock and they like to have some pre-warning of disaster.

What we do know, for sure, is that success and failure come in cycles. You can call them cycles of failure; I prefer cycles of success. How you cope with such losing runs will reveal what sort of personality you have and whether you do, indeed, have any long term future as a punter.

'There are two types of losing runs ... mathematical and psychological'

Mark Cramer, the distinguished American racing writer, has written extensively of the problem in his book Thoroughbred Cycles and makes the telling point: "No matter what your mathematical expectation of hit rate in the long run, you can be sure to encounter losing streaks that will greatly exceed the normal distribution of losers."

He says the 'classical recommendation' for facing the up and down cycle is to bet more when winning and less when you are losing. Many players, of course, will do the opposite. In Cramer's words they go pressing after a few losses, trying to get it all back 'in one stroke', applying the Martingale principle of increasing the bet after each loss.

One way to combat the prospect of long losing runs is to adopt the policy of betting two horses per race. Research has shown that punters who collect on a steady basis are much less liable to suffer lapses in judgement that crop up out of fear and desperation.

British gambling researcher Paul Dennies says: "Most punters put themselves under pressure because of their addiction to single horse bets. They lack psychological comfort, unlike the more cautious bettor who will spread his risk, accept small profits, and achieve a regular return on his bets."

Cramer supports this theory, pointing out that a good longshot handicapper who only needs to collect 20 per cent of the time for a substantial return on investment can expect 'with mathematical certainty' to encounter losing streaks well beyond 10 races.

Case example: Consider, says Cramer, the player who has now had nine losers in a row. In the next race he picks two contenders, a 5 /2 'most likely winner' and a 10/1 longshot. The punter under pressure, aware that a 5/2 type will win more often, goes for that one. He needs to collect.

If the 10/1 chance should win, the player will feel devastated. Now, the two-horses-a-race approach would have saved him from what Cramer calls a 'deep psychological wound' that might impair his judgement over a nightmarish period of time.

Paul Dennies comments: "The multiple bettor doesn't usually have to face these crushing moments of despair because he is unlikely to suffer a nine-loser streak, provided, of course, that he's a good handicapper and not a stupid one.

"The problem for the long losing-run bettor now is that he has to control his judgement otherwise the already bad  losing run may take on an even more worrisome trend, and go from bad to worse. He is tempted to change his approach and methodology, to lose faith in certain horses at certain prices.

"He may have a bet come up at 6 / 4 and knows that even if it wins he is still in deep financial trouble. He may then falter and look for another horse at a better price. Indecision takes over. Does he bet more on the 6/4 chance, or forget it and back the other one? Should he miss the race? ... but then he thinks 'if I miss the race I might miss a winner'.

"And so it goes on. I've had a number of punters come to me with such problems about losing runs and coping with them. My advice is always very simple. Lower your targets, bet two or more a race, give yourself regular returns, cut down the chance of striking long losing runs.

"Only then can they start to feel comfortable about what they are doing."

Mark Cramer says that punters must realise that losing streaks are a natural phase in the inevitable ups and downs of horse-player cycles.

But a losing streak, he says, for a good handicapper will not turn into a man-made disaster unless there is intervention of an unhealthy psychological attitude.

This may take the following form:

  1. Chasing lower than fair prices.
  2. Increasing rather than decreasing the size of the bet.
  3. Flippantly chasing impossible combinations in order to 'get it all back at once'.
  4. Over-handicapping.

He writes that the third point sees the player lose confidence in himself. He turns to public handicappers and tote-board angles but deep down inside he knows that this is all a 'superficial process' that will lead him nowhere in the long run. He just hopes that the short-term action will bail him out of his problems.

In other words, the no-confidence punter begins to tamper with his own approach. He turns what is a natural 'low' into a man-made catastrophe. Says Cramer: "He has boxed himself in psychologically because he did not recognise that his losing streak had been a normal mathematical phenomenon ... until he tampered with it and made it worse."

The same sort of thinking can apply to those punters who hit a hot streak and back a succession of winners. This, too, is a natural phenomenon but the 'hot' punter doesn't accept it as such, and begins to think that he is unbeatable and that luck is on his side. He now bets more money (which is right) but he under-handicaps (which is wrong).

The result of departing from his thorough and conscientious handicapping is that he sees a rapid erosion of his bankroll. Very soon, says Cramer, he is riding down an escalator of his own making.

"I believe that horse-players can determine their own fate by not allowing natural highs and lows to turn into man-made disasters," says Cramer.

Let's look at how a punter's losing runs might happen on a Saturday card. We'll assume he follows a newspaper tipster. In this example, I've chosen Simon Thomas's tips for Randwick from the Sydney Daily Telegraph on New Year's Day.

Betting only his top selections, the punter would have struck a run of six losers in a row from race 3 through to race 8. However, the punter who bet Thomas's top two selections per race would have had to contend with losing runs of only one and two.

Of course, the punter who bets two or three horses per race would not be in the business of chain-betting from race to race through a day's card. He would carefully pick and choose his races.

Summing up, Paul Dennies says: "Anyone who bets on racehorses has to accept a very simple fact: he IS going to encounter losing runs. The mathematics of the game determine this. What he must do, is learn to accept these losing runs and to plan for them financially.

"What he must not do is turn a normal losing streak into a great disaster through a poor psychological approach. If he knows he cannot handle such losing runs, then he has to alter his betting methodology to ensure that such runs are restricted to a minimum.

"Betting two or three runners per race, taking saver bets, that sort of thing, will result in a greater and more consistent flow of returns and will negate, to some extent, the pain of losing streaks that are somewhat long."

The three key points are these:

  1. Keep your nerve when the losers keep arriving.
  2. Don't get cocky and overconfident when you hit a hot winning streak.
  3. Accept that losing runs are a mathematical certainty.

Thoroughbred Cycles, by Mark Cramer (published by Wm Morrow & Company, New York).

By Martin Dowling