Despite what other punters may tell you, the truth is that almost all punters are poor racecourse punters. Ask any bookmaker. The bookies will tell you of the many failings of even the most intelligent punters.

Perhaps the worst is the one which has them going to the 'well' once too often. In other words, going for too many bets, not being content with winnings in hand, seeking more - and failing.

'Oh, the agony' seems to sum up racetrack betting experiences for most punters. Ask yourself the question: How good a punter am I once I set foot on a racetrack? Now give an honest answer. Isn't it a fact that you overbet, that you bet stupidly, that as the afternoon progresses you lose sight of your original aims and intentions?

Isn't it true that you panic from race to race? That you get frightened of missing a winner, and so you end up having too many bets? Isn't it true that if you refrain from betting madly early on you end up only betting madly later in the meeting? Especially, if you happen to hit a loser with your 'best bet' of the day?

There's that old saying that when a man walks through the turnstiles of a racetrack he takes off his usual head, and brains, and replaces them with a pumpkin. Sadly, this is so very true for most punters.

Have a look at the people around you before the first race of the day. They are keen and have a spark in their eyes. They talk confidently with each other. You'll see the 'football crowd' types of younger men talking in 50s and 100s on this and that.

Examine the same people six or seven races later. More often than not, the spark is gone, replaced by a desperate look in the eyes, or a slope-shouldered admission that all has not gone well. Confidence has been zapped, replaced by desperation, or simply a form of panic.

The mind begins to play tricks. You talk yourself into backing horses because you think a win will help you regain losses. You'll back a favourite just because everyone else is backing it; you feel it just has to be a winner (sometimes it is, mostly it will get pipped on the post!).

I believe that a form of mass hysteria takes place on the racetrack. Punters are a classic example of what financial world people call the 'herd mentality'. The 'herd' is an irrational force, easily led, and on the stock market it will join in a bull rush without giving due heed to the rationality of the game. The same applies with punters. The 'herd' follows, and it usually doesn't matter who it follows.

How often have you blindly rushed in to back a horse because 'they' - the mysterious they had backed it? Have you ever stopped to think just who they are? The term has no form, really, no actual shape or identity. 'They' are whoever happens to be called' they' by other members of the herd.

It all gets back to the psychology of punting. Punting, especially in the heady atmosphere of the betting ring, becomes an irrational happening, no matter how many people entered the course with a sensible, rational plan of action.

Punting is made up of fantasy, ego, greed, need and excitement. Many people bet to escape the stresses and, often, drudgery of their daily lives. Betting is a slice of excitement with the prospect of riches. Watching the races, or just listening to them, takes you into another world, it takes your mind off your problems.

Doctors say the average non-bettor's heart has one high activity 'burst' a day, while a punter or a bookie's heart gets a shock every half hour or so, day after day. Thus the term, punter's heart!

There's also the ego aspect of punting. Punters like to feel they belong to a sort of VIP club, an exclusive group.

That's why punters will often put on their best suits to go to the races; psychologists say this is part of the 'fantasy, and ego' aspect of racing, when people get a sense of being an 'in' person by belonging to the same group as the rich and famous, and the professional punters.

Says US psychologist Gabe MCHugh: "Bettors get a sense of being an 'in' person because they can later discuss with other 'in' people how much they won or lost, as well as talking about the various happenings and their views on such happenings, and this is particularly important for them when people outside the 'in' group don't really understand what is being said.

"People try to satisfy their ego by getting a feeling of superiority. Some punters boast of their wins and this is the urge to gain attention, or approval and admiration. Handing out, a winning tip to someone provides these people with a big 'high'-of satisfaction and a feeling of superiority."

The point we now come to is how to control yourself on a racetrack (or in a TAB for that matter). How do you ensure you do not stray down the path of stupidity? How do you refrain from wildly chasing losses or betting up winnings in the pursuit of more winnings?

A sensible punter will embark on his day with only the exact amount of money he requires. Let's say, for example, that you had decided on three bets for the day at $25 each bet. That's $75. Add to this your transport and admission costs (say $10) and food (say $10) and drinks (say $5) and you have a total requirement for the day's racing of $100.

Okay, that's fine. But now ask yourself this question: Will you leave home with just $100 in your pocket? I am sure the answer is No. You will slip $200 in your pocket, or more if you can afford it.

 Already, you see, the mentality - is at work that deep in your subconscious confessing that you will FALL to temptation and bet more than the three horses you have chosen. Otherwise, why are, you taking $200 instead of $100 to the races? What is the other $100 for? Are you going to hand out largesse to the poor along the way?

Here, then, is the first major lesson in discipline. Take only as much as you absolutely need when you go to the races. The point being that if you have no money, left after three losers, you can't any more bets.

You will have neatly nipped in the bud any chance of falling prey to the madness of the racetrack (unless, of course, you can snip a mate for the loan of $50 or so!).

Whether you can handle this particular financial aspect of a day at, the race's is up to you. You have to ensure that you restrict the means by which you can adopt a pumpkin head once you're inside the track. Having no money is the very best and safest excuse I know of for not having a bet!

You must look upon all your racetrack betting as being an improvement curve. Those punters with a desire to improve every aspect of their approach should jot down in a 'confession' notebook all their sins of betting. In the list of bets for the day, put an asterisk next to those which you consider to have been plain foolish. Underline them in red. Add up how much you lost on these stupid bets.

After four weeks, examine your notebook. Write down the mistakes you made. Write down some instructions for yourself to never let yourself fall into such bets again. Gradually, with discipline, you'll discover that you are stopping yourself from indulging in the stupid bets.

After a while, you might even have reached the point where you convince yourself to-take only a minimum amount of money to the racetrack; convinced yourself that you don't need a massive wad of money, that having too much money only encourages too many bets, and in the end too many losses.

When you're at the races you must train yourself to win consistently. Occasional wins are dangerous. Why? Well, let me relate 'a story about some research done a few years, back with pigeons. Researchers trained the birds to peck at a button. The machine then gave the birds some birdseed- but only after a random number of pecks, not after every peck.

The birdseed was handed out, then, in much the same way as a poker machine pays its players! The birds, in response, reacted by constantly and incessantly pecking at the button to the point of exhaustion, while awaiting the uncertain appearance of more birdseed!

Can you see the parallel here with punting? Doesn't a punter react in the same way as those pigeons? Doesn't he bet and bet and bet incessantly, awaiting the next win? The moral being that occasional wins encourage too much betting.

When next you're at the races, stop and think all the time about what you are doing. Look around you and study other people's mad betting habits, and steel yourself to' not be like them.

Take only as much money as you need. The feel of more money in your pocket is like just one 'more drink' to the alcoholic. The name of the game is winning. To win, you need control. Too many bets equals too many losers. Losers, too many of them, mean defeat.

The pumpkin head syndrome will always exist, but you don't have to put it on as you go through the turnstiles. Whether you do or not is, finally, up to you. Whether you join the herd or become a clever solo player is also up to you.

If you really want to succeed, then eat the pumpkin, don't wear it.

By Alan Jacobs