Why is it that sometimes the name of a horse triggers in us a sudden, almost explosive impulse to back it? Why is it that we sometimes feel that "hunch" that leads us to a knockout winner?

These are questions that have puzzled me all the way through my betting life, because I am a hopeless "bunch" punter. Not in a big way, as regards dollars, but from a regularity point of view. A few times a week I will bet horses that caused me to stop and ponder over them for no apparent reason.

A psychologist friend of mine, when I asked him what it was that caused this, explained:

"People who back racehorses operate on a deep subconscious level. Many facets of the game are hidden away in this subconscious, and names can trigger a reaction, causing the recesses of the mind to be tapped.

"It could be just a fragment of something remembered, or even a built-in warning system the punter has developed over the years which causes him or her to be subconsciously alert for these hidden symbols."

I think it's a bit less rarefied than what my psychologist pal had to say, but maybe he's right. I tend to think we punters possess what might well be called "ESP" when it comes to noticing a hunch bet.

The UK Smartsig Net racing forum recently had a long discussion between punters on this very subject.

The debate was kicked off by a member who told of his method of backing certain favourites in a race.

He said: "I've been trying to follow a method of 'falling favourites at 2/1 or less', where the SP is 2/1 or less, a clear 2 points between first and second favourites, and where the price of the favourite has, overall, shortened from first show and moved down at least twice.

"However, there's another activity, an involuntary and uncontrollable one, which has been going on for some years: Sometimes once a day, sometimes a few times, when looking at race cards, a horse's name catches my eye. It's that of the soon-to-be winner. To give two examples from yesterday, a day when this phenomenon was quite distracting: Redcar: Oscar Pepper (8/1), Navisaky (5/1) and other recent occurrences were Monash Lady (5/1), Annadawi (7/1), and Charley Bates (6/1). 

"This sounds like a series of claims from a tipping service.. . but it's not. The information has one constant facet to it: it is completely non-volitional. What I mean is, I cannot get it to operate when I want it to ... it either just happens or it doesn't just happen.

"If I go looking for these intuitive(?) selections (oxymoron?), the process, possibly from being affected by desire and aversion, just is not available. But it still happens in its own way, when it wants to. (Yes, I know, 'it' isn't a person ... but what is, then, clever one?)

"Do any others 'suffer' from this?

If so, how do you view it? Do you just say, 'Oh, there it goes again' and smile and let it go, or do you use the information? How do you avoid trying to make it happen? Do you think this is just plain 'nuts'? Why? I assure you, it's just a matter of observation. If you think I'm mistaken, why do you think that? Is it an immediate response or a considered one?"

There was a mixture of scorn, agreement and pity for this forum contributor.

One member wrote: "Sadly, I have to admit to suffering similarly but put my 'problem' down to watching a lot of racing and, historically, not making effective enough notes about horses that have done something in a race that needs noting.

"I now try to discipline myself to add such horses to an 'alert service' as soon as the 'problem' arises.

There are still certain days when I 'suffer' but that just serves to improve my discipline. I wonder if I'll be cured before I die?"

Another member joined in: "You are not alone in your telepathic experiences. I have experienced such events since I was about 16 (nearly 40 years ago). It usually involves numbers such as prices of items or exam results. The figures, e.g. £18.76 in one case, have been 'abnormal' enough to be considered unusual and relatively unpredictable. (If you follow my tortured English there.) I often get the same about horses but rarely have exploited it as I tend to 'get' the insight just seconds before the off.

"The curious thing is I also get similar flashes from dead events like on ancient films which I haven't seen before. Again it's usually with numbers but sometimes names. Much of this can be explained rationally but there have been plenty of examples which I and others haven't been able to explain.

"If you find a way to exploit your talents, do let me know. As soon as I try, the rationalising mind sets in and I lose the pure instinct."

And this from another forum member: "Yes, it happens all the time. It cannot be explained, except by those who  believe in Divine Intervention or the secular version, 'Something will come up'. Strangely, it always does.

"That's why mugs like me go back for more time after time. Personally, I'm a great believer in Chance Encounter. Somehow we get taken to the place we want to be, and we find out the things we need to know. Trying too hard can give negative results."

Then a note of scepticism came in with this posting, which was mentioned in our Letters Page last month.

The contributor wrote: "I have no doubt that you and others do receive heightened awareness when your eyes rest on the name of a particular horse.

"When it happens to me I choose to ignore it as I have no proof that such happenings, if followed through by wagers, would in fact yield a profit. I liken the experience to the 'sixth sense' findings of the mid-'80s, where a common trait of CE0s representing Fortune 500 firms was that they put down part of their success to the decisions they made when only relying on their 'sixth sense'.

"This being an inexplicable knowledge or knowing feeling regarding a matter they had no previous experience of and yet this guiding force led them along the path to success.

"On a practical level the simple solution to your 'problem' is to ensure you always carry a small notebook with you and record the next 100 occurrences. At least then you will have some hard facts to work on. After all, the mind can play tricks and you may just be remembering the winners."

Even a note of humour was injected into the debate. This is a contribution from a forum member: "I get these from  time to time and have no idea why; perhaps it's one of those rare flashes where the form book means something to me. As to my 'sign' . . . I was born under Pyrex as I was a test tube baby."

Generally, though, the debate was serious, with enough punters wanting to share their experiences. One wrote:  This is covered in Michael Pizzola's book Handicapping Magic where he advocates 'soft focusing on form' to let the unconscious do its work. This is mainly used by him to work out which horses the public will bet on.

"In my opinion, what is happening is that in the course of watching racing and studying form we take in huge amounts of information, most of which is wrongly interpreted by us and generally forgotten. However, sometimes this information sticks in a crevice in our brains only to be dislodged much later to 'catch our eye'.

"I find this particularly occurs when I walk into a room where a horse-race is on the television. I glance at the list of runners and one name will jump out at me.

"Quite often this horse does well in the race. What I think is happening here is that I remember some distant article or race I watched involving this horse which I have long forgotten consciously but my brain still keeps on ice. If you study the race, then all the 'real' information about the horses crowds out your random bits of information.

"I have actually tracked down this occurring in a handicap hurdle where I casually picked a 10/1 winner as above. I bothered to track through its form and discovered that I'd seen it win a novice hurdle at Chepstow two years before but in no way could I have consciously remembered that without looking it up.

More humour crept in, with this posting: "This is uncanny; I looked at the Racing Post this morning and Gralmano jumps out at me. Unbelievably, it won! Unfortunately, not having any money left due to the fact that I backed all the other horses this year whose names 'jumped out at me', I was unable to take advantage of this strange phenomena.

"Luckily for me, I notice from the forum that Pizzola's Book of Handicapping Magic is now available in paperback. It won't be long before my undoubted ability to soft focus on form is harnessed from my unconscious state and transformed into real betting opportunities."

By Alan Jacobs