Horse racing statistics at Belmont Park have always been collected by humans and stopwatches. But this year—almost in lockstep with leagues like the NBA and Nascar—horse racing added digital tracking equipment to The Belmont Stakes. For the first time, horse tracking happened digitally, thanks to a company named Trakus, which tracked every step of each leg of the race and augmented broadcasts with identification information and vital statistics—like split times—in real time.
In North America, there’s a runoff to the official starting line for thoroughbred racing. The starting line isn’t actually at the gate. In fact, the race doesn't begin until the first horse breaks the starting line. At most racetracks, Trakus provides that information and its system times the race. The photo-finish provider determines the order in which the horses race, but the actual timing of horse racing is provided by the Trakus system.
"The technology we use is [2.4GHz] spread spectrum, so similar to Wi-FI," says Bob McCarthy, CEO at Trakus. "We use our own programming and our own hardware. All the electronics that are provided by Trakus to the racetracks are Trakus designed. The design is proprietary from the circuit board all the way up through the software and into the presentation of the graphics."
Trakus uses RFID to track horses as they move around the track. The company outfits all of its partner racetracks—14 thoroughbred tracks worldwide— with around 30 antennas and RFID chips for each horse.
Once the Trakus system collects the data, it's wired to Equibase—a thoroughbred racing information company—and Trakus' partner racetracks to provide sectional timing and margins and other statistics such as trip distance and speed into files the racetrack can display on their websites.
"That allows us to use the antennas sort of in an opposite way of GPS," McCarthy explains. "The antennas are the receivers. The tag on the horse is the transmitter. We track the horses typically 30 times a second, so within a foot. We provide that information with near-zero latency into a graphic and it’s overlaid on the television broadcast or over the simulcast feed."
That enables live replay and production enhancements, including full-field running order, sectional times and margins, a "progress" meter, and photo-realistic 3-D virtual replays.
"It's Viagra for horse racing," says Pat Cummings, Trakus's director of racing information.
And while the order of finishing is still determined by photo-finish systems at every track, Trakus is responsible for recording the statistics supporting the official results. The officiating of the race is done in North America by the Equibase chart caller and the stewards. Once that information is published, there’s one set of results as a combination of Trakus and other technologies, the photo-eye technology and the infrared (IR) broken beam.
"The technology is completely integrated with the photo-finish system. If there are other systems out there, whether it’s predecessor technology or otherwise. Because we do so much more tracking of each runner individually, there’s an open interface for the integration of information before it’s presented."
Trakus, originally a spin-off from an MIT Entrepreneurship Competition, was involved with more team-based sports at first, and was featured in Nascar and the 2001 NHL All-Star Game.
Around 2004-2005, however, the company reorganized to focus on all forms of horse racing, primarily thoroughbreds. In 2007, Trakus went live in Toronto at Woodbine Racetrack. Since then, Trakus has expanded to tracks all over North America and even into Hong Kong, Singapore, Istanbul, and Dubai.
Trakus was installed with New York racetracks at the end of 2013 and has been operating at Aqueduct and Belmont Park. Trakus already operates at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby and, while Pimlico is the final holdout for Trakus' own triple crown, 2014 marks the first year the technology will be featured at the Belmont Stakes.
"We operate every day at all of our partner racecourses, so we’re more than a television product," says Cummings. "We’re part of the racetrack’s own simulcast feed."
[Image: Flickr user nakashi]