Nerve? What's that? A bit of cheek? Not quite the same.

Nerve is the thing that gives us the power to carry on. It's the strength to make yet another bet in the face of a fierce losing streak, to back our judgement when the worst losing run of all time is upon us, and maybe to bet our last and maximum amount for the day, when a horse we think is the best bet of the day is drifting right out the gate in the market.

When everything conspires against us, our nerve must hold or we are history. Some people would call it guts, but it's not quite the same. Guts might be, quite simply, brave but misguided courage, but nerve is the capacity to hold onto what we believe will see us through.

Lose your nerve and lose everything, as several expert writers are claimed to have said.

And they are probably correct.

I was at the recent Villiers meeting, and while I had been backing good winners over the past weeks, I had some doubts about my ability to identify the old Oliver/Freedman combination the way I used to be able to.

I had felt that, before Damien went away, I could sometimes predict which of their combinations would win that day, then simply shovel the cash on.

The formula was relatively easy to identify. But lately, even before the suspension, things had not been so straightforward.

Anyway, I had decided that Drinkcard Princess had the fourth race in her keeping at Moonee Valley. Maybe a danger from the favourite, but really this was a put-on, take-out proposition.

So I stood and watched the fluctuations - 3/1, 7/2, 4/1, then 9/2. That didn't bother me too much, as horses blow a bit most of the time down south and still win.

But as I redid my sums, preparing to make my maximum bet, I remarked to my pal John Michael from The Australian newspaper that the filly did have barrier 13 in a field of 13, and that isn't good at Moonee Valley over 1600 metres.

The feeling that I was maybe ignoring a very clear sign started to get to me.

John made a very receptive reply: "Oliver and Freedman make up the difference," he said. A logical, clear statement of fact. Of course they did.

So on went my maximum, and I revelled in seeing Oliver steer the selection across the field then steady her behind the tearaway leader, move one-out at the 700, drive to the lead at the 400, sprint clear as they rounded the turn and hang on by about a long neck in the straight. She sprinted twice, and this brilliant ride undoubtedly won the race for her.

Now I am not saying my nerve would have gone, in fact I am sure it would not have, but I felt the twinges. And if I can feel them after all these years, I suspect that most punters, like me, have them all their betting lives.

Had the race been another ten minutes away and the price drifted to 6/1 or so, would I have halved my bet, telling myself that I only needed to risk half as much at the price of 6/1 as I would have done at the opening price (and my expected price) of 3/1?

Maybe, I'm not quite sure.

As I write this now, my temptation is to say that I would not have done so, especially as I preach that a better price just means more winnings.

But nerve is a funny thing and losing yours, when you are about to make a very sizable inroad into your betting bank, is always just a whisker away.

Any punter who tells you otherwise is one of two things (or both): a fool or a liar. Avoid him, he will take you down with him.

At that same meeting I ran into an old friend from schooldays. As kids, we called him Bud, because his name was Charles Holley. He never tired of telling us that Buddy Holly's name was originally the same as his, even down to the different spelling. So he got "Bud".

Bud has never been a very big bettor. Five here, maybe ten there, always for the place. Not my style at all, but he goes for the fun of it and likes to make twenty or thirty such bets in the one afternoon, collecting on most.

He doesn't know if he wins or loses over the year but says the costs never eat into his budget, so what the hell?

However, this particular afternoon, in a hushed tone he mentioned a mate who had recently lost everything and disappeared. The man had been playing the share market and it had dropped significantly.

Instead of staying for the longterm ride, he had drawn most of his cash out and plunged on several chances during the recent Melbourne spring carnival.

Things could not have gone much worse, because every bet the poor bloke made nearly came off. If the horses lose badly, at least you don't go away saying "if only".

But this poor bloke backed Filante in the Cox Plate, Doriemus in the Caulfield Cup, Filante again in the Mackinnon, Tie The Knot in the Derby, and then Doriemus again in the Melbourne Cup.

The fellow apparently took a couple of weeks off, then came back recharged, and backed Rock Point in Sydney to see it hit the front in the straight, then be repassed by the horse it had just caught, and outstayed by a neck, at big odds.

He then supported Oak Crest in the last race in Melbourne and (almost unbelievably), this horse too hit the front, then was passed again by the horse it had passed at the furlong mark.

I cannot recall many days when two horses hit the front, got clear, then were passed again by the leader so close  to the line.

Yet our man backed both. Bud says the man's nerve was shot, and he simply went very quiet, borrowed the cab fare and left. As to his present whereabouts, Bud doesn't know.

What can we do to make sure this doesn't happen to us? Well, I offer just three golden rules. Not new, not original, but the only ones I know that will protect us from something very real and always near.

  1. Never use any money, other than what you can afford to lose, for any kind of speculative investment.

    Try to make the assumption that it all can be lost, then stand back and ask how you would face the next day if that happened. If you couldn't, then the amount is far too high.

    Reallocate your expenses, reallocate your betting bank, then try this exercise again.

    Imagine looking in the mirror at yourself and saying "I have just lost $XXXX". If it gives you the shakes just thinking about it, sit down and do your allocation sums again!
  2. Trust your judgement once you have satisfied rule one. Remember my experience related above, and stick to your guns. If you lose, then you lose, and that's that, but hold onto your dream.
  3. Remember that things go in cycles. Racing is no exception. You will win most of your profits on half a dozen great days in each year, break even or make small profits on maybe half the other number of days, and lose some on the rest.

There will be days, maybe weeks, where everything goes wrong. So long as you are betting inside your limits, the chances of things righting themselves are so much stronger.

Lose your nerve, and that, my friend, is that. But there is no need to, if you accept that we all have times when doubts surface, and we each need to have our strategies in place.

One last thing. The easiest punter to fool on the track or at the TAB is yourself ... but you have to go home with that same punter and face the morning after.

By The Optimist