At a BBQ recently, my pal Martin Dowling asked me to join a syndicate he’d formed to bet the First 4.

“There is big money to be made,” he enthused over his sausage and chop. “All it takes is some clever staking.”

I had no hesitation in joining the syndicate, especially as it also boasts among its members PPM’s Brian Blackwell and Jon Hudson. It’s a case of the four of us getting deadly serious about landing some big ones.

But what about that staking?  How best can it be done  and how much does it cost? The answer is that, like much else in racing, it’s hard. Each race has to be approached as an individual challenge. No single staking plan can deal with every race.

The First 4, as you probably know, asks you to correctly select the first four horses home . . . in the correct finishing order. It ain’t easy! But, hey, isn’t this exactly why we’re in this crazy game? Because nothing is easy, it’s all a big challenge to your skills as a punter and a selector, and there will always be highs and lows as we travel along the road.

Our syndicate has set a maximum outlay of $400 on any selected race. We operate on Saturdays and we choose one race (very occasionally, two). By sticking to the one race we can all have an opinion and we can take it “all the way” in getting the combinations right.

So far, we’ve done well but there were a few Saturdays when our best laid plans were just shot out of the water. Just when we thought we had the game licked it turned around and kicked sand in our face.

Our best hope is that we can take ONE horse as a win banker. This must not be a favourite. Any banker we choose is going to be 5/1 or longer in the early market. The reason is that by banking on a favourite in the win slot we are immediately looking at a low dividend, even if a longshot maybe sneaks into one of the placings.

The only deviation is when we concentrate on a small field and the banker might fall into a category around, say, 7/4 to 5/2.

How do we choose the horses to go into the combinations? Easy. We hold a blind draw each week and one name is pulled from the hat. No matter who it is, the bet becomes his responsibility. The following week, this member is left out of the draw and the other three go into the hat. In the third week the two members who have missed out go into the hat and of course there’s no draw on the fourth week as the remaining member gets his chance.

As far as the staking goes, it depends on how much we fancy the various horses. Our most successful “banker for first place” combinations have been achieved with the following linkup of selections per placing:


That is, we take ONE horse as the banker to win the race. We then choose seven other runners to fill 2nd-3rd-4th. The cost is $210, which means $50 in for each member of the syndicate.

I said earlier that we sometimes go for short-priced bankers in small fields. A classic example was our decision to invest $60 using Eremein as the banker in the Festival Stakes at Rosehill on January 19.  Brian was confident that the longshot Lancaster Park could fill a placing in the 6-horse field, so the prospect was there for a nice kill.

Eremein won at 2/1 and Lancaster Park at 100/1 did indeed run 2nd. The First 4 was achieved with a 1-5-5-5 combination. We had Eremein to win and the Field racing for the other placings. It paid $679.60. We took it three times for a $180 bet and a return of $2,038.

They’re not all as plain and simple as that one, and I have to admit that we did rely very much on Lancaster Park defying the market to run 2nd. But that’s what punting is all about. There’s an element of risk in everything.
Sometimes those 100/1 shots can cruel the bet, as one did at Randwick on January 26. We carefully constructed a banker bet around El Meroo, a 9/1 chance. We ended up with a 1-5-5-5 combination taken four times but, alas, it didn’t include Philosophe!

Had we gone 1-7-7-7 we would have included this Zabeel 8yo and we could have landed a First 4 worth some $11,646! As I say, racing’s full of these hard luck stories and you need to be able to handle them at an emotional level.

With this bet we outlaid $240 and got nothing, when we should have outlaid $210 for a return of more than $11,600. 

When betting the exotics, results like this one can deal you a real bodyblow but, at the same time, you will realise that the potential is there for the opposite to happen. That is, a huge result for a relatively small outlay.

Another combination we are keen about is to take three bankers for the 1st and 2nd slots, and then to have a total of nine for 3rd and 4th. This costs $252 and it’s a bet that worked for us in the Miller Hdcp 1600m at Caulfield on January 12.

It was easy enough to find the three horses for the banker slots for 1st and 2nd. These were Barwon Express (around 3/1), Offenbach (around 4/1) and Sea Battle (around 7/2). For the 3rd and 4th slots we added six others and we included Saratime (around 6/1) and Vicarage Gate (around 33/1). As it turned out, Barwon Express won, Offenbach ran 2nd, Vicarage Gate was 3rd and Saratime was 4th.

The First 4 dividend was more than $4,900. Now that’s a pretty good bet considering that the first two home were both well fancied. Barwon Express started at $3.70 and Offenbach was at $5.20.

The importance of including wildcard chances was clearly emphasised by Vicarage Gate running 3rd. We decided it had a chance for the placing because it had a 50 per cent place record at the distance, was fifth back from a spell so should have been fit and had a strong rider, Greg Childs aboard.

When you construct your First 4 bets, always remember that you are seeking windfall returns and that means going outside the square to find the smokeys who are capable of bobbing up for a placing in the first four home. If you stick to all the well-fancied runners, you may strike more collects but they won’t be big enough.

The 3-3 banker combination for 1st and 2nd is a good one, and you can use as many horses as you like to add for 3rd and 4th.  The following are some examples:

3-3-5-5 costs $36
3-3-6-6 costs $72
3-3-7-7 costs $120
3-3-8-8 costs $180
3-3-9-9 costs $252
3-3-10-10 costs $336

Remember that your 3rd and 4th selections must included those you took as bankers for 1st and 2nd as well.

A riskier approach is when you confidently anticipate you can pick the 1st and 2nd horses with one selection for each! You banker the 1st slot, banker the 2nd and then take as many runners as you want for 3rd and 4th.  Let’s say you did this and took six horses to run 3rd and 4th. This will cost $30.

Do it with seven horses for 3rd and 4th and the cost rises to $42. Do it with eight horses for 3rd and 4th and it will cost $56. Do it with nine horses and it’ll cost $72. Add one more to make it 10 horses for 3rd and 4th and you’ll be up for $90.

The problem with this bet is that you need to be VERY accurate with those two bankers. You have to nail that exacta with one pick for each slot. A tough job.

Occasionally, there are races where it can be done but you’d need to alert to the opportunity.

The preference is for a mixture of good value and big value horses. Keep your bankers at good prices, throw in key chances and also put in those wildcard longshots.

Form a syndicate with some mates and you’ll be able to chase the BIG divvies. Just one will make it all worthwhile.

By Richard Hartley Jnr