Eachway betting? An old chestnut, surely. And surely everything's been said about it that could be said.

Well, this time last year I might have agreed with that. It was a hard year on the punt and I have been examining my entire betting approach with a view to correcting some problems that have crept in. One of them was that I had no less than 24 second placings, many at very good prices (some double figures).

In how many bets? Would you believe, at one stage, after 60 selections I had over 20 good seconds? And they all paid me nothing.

I got talking to a couple of the best judges at the track and they were as divided as ever on the virtues of eachway betting. The mathematics of the question are as always. You have to accept a mammoth slide in your return on the stake if you bet eachway, especially on longshots.

For example, if you back an 8/1 winner, you get 9 back. Back it eachway and you get 12 back for 2. Your odds go from 8/1 to 5/1. Back a 20/1 eachway shot and it wins. You get a bit over 12s. A 12/1 winner pays you 15/2.

Purists would say that you are better off backing two horses in the one race, to win: your selection, and maybe the favourite or the horse you see as the main danger.

American Dick Mitchell has a great deal to say about this in his magnificent books. It's a shame they are prohibitively expensive to buy here, or even to import.

He is capable of pulling 60 per cent winners from groups of 10 races (i.e. six winners from 20 selections, in 10 races), by backing two to win in selected races. He aims for a slight edge to his betting and is satisfied with a turnover profit that would not make the small or average-bet punter too pleased. A punter who expects a big return on his betting dollar is much better off with systematic play than with this sort of concentrated day-by-day grind.

However, Mitchell makes a comfortable living with his concepts and he is a proven top assessor, which you have to be in an all-tote betting country. He also has the advantage of win-place show, yet sticks to win-win for his two selections in a race.

Back to good old Oz. What should we do? It's always going to be opinion, but I hold strongly to the view that a place bet may be seen as an insurance investment in a race where there are three or four chances to win. You can't sew up the race by taking a second selection to win, as there are two more that might squeeze you out.

I agree, with four chances there is the chance you will run fourth (or worse), but the insurance is strong if you really regard a horse as the number one chance of WINNING.

Stronger, maybe, than taking another to win and seeing them run second and third.

So, what to do? Should the bet be staggered? A bookmaker won't, in general, let us do that (I mean, bet, say, two by seven, or one by four, etc.). The TAB will, but its place divvies are often awful, especially in the smaller races.

You can do it in the big ones. For example, if you fancy a horse in the Melbourne Cup, you can drop down to your friendly TAB on the Monday evening at 8 o'clock, with two million dollars in the pool, and perhaps find that your selection, at 15/1 the win, is at 10/1 the place.

It happens! But only a few times each year. With a couple of million in the pool, and another three or four million to come in on Tuesday, the market is set. Not in concrete, but it's a fair bet that even when a smartie, or three smarties, spots the overs, your horse will still pay 8/1 the place. Or it may stay at 10s or even drift!

Then you are getting 10/1 for three chances as against only another 50 per cent for reducing your chances by two-thirds.

It's a hard argument to overcome, even for the most hardened win only bettor. But it doesn't come up often enough for the everyday punter, or even the regular weekend bettor. However, something that is very relevant to eachway betting or even place betting DOES come up regularly. Short-priced animals can pay well eachway. So well that bookies often won't let you on!

If a bookmaker won't take your money, what must you deduce? Of course! He does not have an edge. So, if you try to find a race where there are maybe only two or three chances (unless the earth turns over, as it can in horse-racing!), and there are maybe 10 starters, you may find a reluctance on a bookie's part to bet you eachway. He, too, regards the race as a three-horse race, and he likes your chances.

If he likes your chances, his are reduced, so he doesn't want to bet you. Sydney bookmakers are difficult to attract to eachway betting, but they have relented somewhat as times have got tighter for them. Also, if you establish a relationship with one of them as a regular client, you will be surprised at what he will do. They want regular business, so there is always an extra assistance for you as a regular. One of these is an eachway bet where the rank and file punters are refused.

Now let's go back to those short prices again. Say we limit ourselves to 4/1. At 4/1, the insurance (let's assume eight or more runners) is that you will get your money back if the horse runs second or third, and if it wins you will receive odds of 5/2. You bet two and get seven back. Five of his for two of yours, or 2.5 to one.

On the other hand, if it is at 2 / 1, you rescue half your stake if it places, and if it wins you receive (hold onto your hat) 5/4. Five for four, 1.25 to one. So is it worth it, to throw out three-eighths of your return on insurance?

That is the point, isn't it? How's your blood pressure? Is it easier for you to wear tight finishes if you know you will get back SOME as against none? That's a personal thing, but I want to stick to the maths of the business.

The late Don Scott maintained, in line with most professionals, that a bet eachway on a sure thing was the best bet anyone could wish for. Not odds-on, but, to take an example, what about Our Unicorn at Rosehill on March 20 in the Manion Cup?

This horse could (I believe WOULD) have won the 1998 Caulfield Cup, with a run. We don't need to relive that disgraceful fiasco.

Here he was, after a very good first-up run and then competing in an unsuitable Australian Cup, at 5/2 in a field against eight ordinaries, and one real danger. The only danger was the eight-year-old Praise Indeed, ironically another horse that was robbed of his rightful place in a Cup field last spring.

True, Praise Indeed had won his last start, and his record suggested that he could win (three at the track and distance), out he was the ONLY danger.

Good grief! 5/2. I never even dreamt it till I saw it. I already knew (as everyone did who was on his or her toes) that the horse would be ridden closer that day, because he is a sleeper (meaning he turns off during his races). I also knew he could race that way (you have to do your form to know these things).

At 5/2 he was a grand bet, and I could save on Praise Indeed. Or I could bet eachway (if I found a bookie) on Our Unicorn and get a tick above 6/4 if he won, or back both of them to win, and get 9/10 if Our Unicorn won, but 1 / 1 should Praise Indeed get up at 3s. (I have taken the bet as if I outlaid two units, one for each horse.)

Need a bit of help there? OK, I back Praise Indeed at 3/1, meaning there is \$4 on my ticket. I back Our Unicorn at 5/2, so there is \$3.50 on the ticket. Two dollars out. Praise Indeed is running for me at 1 / 1 (four back, two out). Our Unicorn is running for me at 9/10 (\$3.50 back for my two).

But he is running at 6/4 eachway, and I save \$1.65 of my \$2, if he runs a place, by backing him eachway. It's not the easiest of puzzles, but basically the argument goes that if you can get eachway about a pretty good thing in a pretty ordinary field, there is a case for an eachway bet as against a saver bet on a second horse. If your horse is beaten, it only has to run a place, whereas to collect at all, if your horse is beaten, your second choice has to WIN.

The answer, as they say, is a pineapple. But I don't think the question is yet exhausted, and in a few months I will raise the issue again. I suspect that next month is my "head on the block" month for the early Melbourne Cup ideas, although, with the late carnivals this year, I might plead for one more month's grace (please, Editor?). Also, there will be so much to tell you next month about the new PPM concept that we may be tied up with that. We'll see!

By The Optimist

PRACTICAL PUNTING - MAY 1999