A guide to betting on behaviour

Dr Geoffery Huston is author of ‘Watching Racehorses: A guide to betting on behaviour’ which analyses horse behaviour to indicate their likely performance. Huston goes into exceptional detail regarding how punters can improve their results by using behavioural handicapping. Following is his chat with David Duffield of www.championpicks.com.au David Duffield: What should punters be looking for in the parade ring to be confident that their selection is ready to perform? Geoffrey Hutson: In a word, normal. I carry in my head a mental image of Phar Lap in his glass case at the Melbourne Museum. I want my horse to look like that. Alert, interested, ready to go. DD: What warning signs should they be looking for as an indication that a horse might not be at it’s best? GH: I’d say signs of arousal. A fractious horse is easy to spot. My rule of thumb is that a horse must have four feet on the ground. So I don’t much like to see bucking, rearing or pig-rooting. Less obvious is the unsettled horse. A horse which changes its gait from a walk to a jog and back to a walk – and if it has its head up as well – then it is unsettled. These horses can still win, but I don’t bet on them. I also like horses to be accepting of the bit – not gaping or grinding on the bit. DD: How much attention do you pay to racing gear like pacifiers, nose rolls, tongue ties, bandages etc? GH: Heaps. I like my horses to be cleanskins. My general feeling is that if a horse is carrying special gear then it has a problem and the trainer has attempted to fix the problem with the gear. My own personal aversion is the nose roll. A horses chances of winning are only diminished by 14% – and this statistic hasn’t changed much in 10 years of watching – but I never bet on them. They are usually used with horses that race ungenerously, that is with their heads up in the air. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Why risk it? I have seen horses trying to shake them off their heads. And the same with all other gear. I actively avoid cross-over nose bands, pacifiers and bandages. A tongue tie is probably OK if the horse accepts it, but if the horse shows signs of not accepting it, such as gaping or twisting its head, then be careful. Tapes on the bumpers are OK. Bandages anywhere else are a no-no. But be aware that some trainers can play tricks with bandages. DD: How long does it take for the average punter to learn enough about watching horses pre-race for it to help their bottom line? GH: I don’t know. They say that to become really good at something you need to practise for 10 years. I’ve been watching for 20 years and I’m still learning. If you just look at one horse, your own selection, and simply decide whether it is normal or not – I’d say it could be done in one race meeting! DD: Can it be done watching Sky Channel and TVN or do you have to be at the track? GH: It can, but you only get to see them for what, 15-20 seconds? I can probably size a horse up in one second, but I much prefer to look at them for as long as possible. DD: What role does the strapper have in helping a horse perform at it’s best? GH: Very important. A positive, caring strapper makes all the difference. Likewise, an uncaring strapper, jagging on the strap, swearing at the horse, using two hands to control it, are all very negative factors. DD: Is it true you even monitor horses bowel motions? GH: Yes, very carefully. I am especially interested in the consistency of the motion. My general opinion is that dumping is a negative, and that the sloppier the consistency, then the more fearful is the horse. DD: What advice do you give to a punter when the horse he wants to back is sweating heavily before the race. GH: Have a good hard look at yourself. Are you wearing your sweater? If so, be extra careful. Are you in shirtsleeves? If so, back it with alacrity. I only worry about sweaters if it is cold. Sweating is a positive in hot weather and in humid weather. DD: Do some horses really have a herd mentality and don’t really want to be out in front? GH: I’ve heard people say this. They are certainly a herd animal. I guess losers, by definition, don’t like it much. DD: How much improvement do you think a punter can gain by closely watching pre-race behaviour? Say if he or she is currently making 5% on turnover, how much better do you think that can be by following your methods? GH: I’d say 1 or 2%. Who was it that said the one percenters are important? Jeans, Sheeds, Parkin? DD: Do you target certain types of races or horses to bet on? GH: Yes. I love 2YOs because nobody knows anything about them. I especially like 2YO races with 5 or 6 runners and two place dividends. I only have to rule out three or four horses. But I mainly bet on 3YO fillies and mares races because these horses are more honest and predictable in their behaviour. DD: Why do you mainly bet the place? GH: Well, I do no form and so I can’t predict winners. I’m much better at picking losers. But often I can predict if a horse is going to run well. Place betting gives me three chances of being right. I’ve also recently got into Betfair and bought an iPhone so that I can now lay horses at the track. That adds a whole new dimension to my day at the races. DD: Thanks very much for your time. Dr Huston’s website is www.watchingracehorses.com.au