The problem, however, is that whenever an edge becomes apparent, the bookies will set about it with an industrial sander until it blends seamlessly into the remainder of the featureless punting landscape. Each-way betting terms, for example, were once far more attractive than those offered by the big bookmakers today.
A punter and author called Graham Wheldon, however, believes that he has an edge, one which few of his fellow backers or even the bookies fully appreciate, which he exploited last year to the tune of pounds 5,477 (and 85p).
The title of Wheldon's recent book will not win any prizes for raciness, but The Effects of the Draw (Raceform, pounds 9.95) is as pithy and practical a read as you will find.
Most punters, of course, are aware that a horse's position in the stalls can have an effect on its running, but Wheldon says that "while people look at the draw, they do not necessarily do so in the way that they should. You have to look at the draw advantage in previous races, and try and work out how a horse's form figures would look on a level playing field. There's the old cliche about a horse beaten a short-head being a winner without a penalty, but it will probably go up 6lb anyway. But then you get a race like the handicap at Newmarket last Friday night, when they split into two groups. The first two came up the far side, but the third horse, Mullitover, came up the stands rail. He might be put up a pound next time, but that probably won't be enough to stop him."
The bad news for lazy punters is, as always, that there is no substitute for dogged hard work and vigilance. Wheldon studies any race where the draw may play a part, looks in particular for horses that have run well from a bad draw, and backs them next time out, so long as such factors as going, distance and - of course - the draw are in their favour. Nor is it even possible to assume that the effect of the draw at a particular track will remain constant, since a new watering system or even minor alterations to the drainage can have a considerable effect.
On the straight course at Yarmouth, for instance, Wheldon says that "there never seemed to be any advantage until the last two or three years, when it's become one of the top three or four for draw bias in the country. I think it's because they have a sprinkler system to water the course, and the wind always seems to be in the same direction, off the sea. This blows the water away from the stands rail, and I think there is a strip, three or four horses wide, which doesn't get any water at all, giving the high numbers a huge advantage. Kieren Fallon certainly seems to know about it."
This last comment brings in another important point - some jockeys understand how best to exploit a good draw, but others quite clearly do not. "You'll get some riders on a hold-up horse," Wheldon says, "who rather than hold him up on the rails will hold up behind the pack, three or four horses off the rail, so there's no point in being drawn one in the first place. Someone like Ray Cochrane, on the other hand, if he was drawn one on a horse like Gone Savage at Sandown, will never come off the rail."
One chapter of Wheldon's book details his betting during the 1997 Flat season, when his initial bank of pounds 1,000 grew to pounds 6,477 by the end of the campaign. He offers no guarantees that his readers will be able to emulate his success, but at the very least they may well find that they never look at a Flat race in quite the same way again. And that, in itself, would be a significant achievement.
The Effects Of The Draw, by Graham Wheldon. (pounds 9.95, Raceform, 01635 578 080).Reuse content