When the 3 (Morning Prayers) started to sprint clear of the field in Wednesday night's third race at Woodbine, most bettors turned their attention to the battle for second and third, which would decide the exacta and trifecta, the most popular bets on the menu. Under normal circumstances, it would have been difficult to figure out who was doing what among the also-rans, who can turn into smallish brown blurs on the television screens carrying simulcast action to horseplayers around the globe.
The nature of horse racing, where the action can take place a long way from where the cameras are stationed, and frequently happens at night and at poorly lit racing facilities, doesn't make for a particularly good television product. It only gets worse at a busy simulcast location, where race calls can be impossible to hear over the din of a dozen or so competing signals.
But, thanks to a wireless tracking system known as Trakus, anyone betting on and watching the Woodbine races Wednesday had no problem following the third race or figuring out who finished second and third. (The 2 edged the 4). All they had to do was to follow the colored squares racing around the bottom of their screen.
Trakus, which made its debut Wednesday at Woodbine, might change the way people watch races in North America. Eventually, Trakus will do many things, but Wednesday's simulcast presentation of the Woodbine card presented only the "chicklet" feature, another name for the colored squares.
Woodbine used a split-screen presentation, with the traditional pan shot on the top half and the computer-generated chicklets on the bottom. There is a chicklet or colored square for each horse, with the colors the same as the saddletowel colors (e.g. the one is red in every race). In real time, the chicklets move around the racetrack exactly in sync with the horses. Because the chicklets are much easier to see and follow than the pictures of the actual horses, the eye usually winds up focusing on the bottom half of the screen.
"The basic idea is to allow the viewer to see their horses throughout the race," said Trakus President and C.E.O. Bob McCarthy, a graduate of prestigious Tufts University. "There are things that can't be easily shown with video, no matter how tight you shoot it. For instance, you can lose a horse several lengths behind the leader. With our stuff, you can exaggerate things in animation, so no matter where your horse is you can watch him."
To make Trakus work, a tiny transponder is placed in the saddletowel of each horse. The transponder sends a signal to three antennas around the racetrack, which are loaded into a computer to generate a digital image.
The chicklets are just the beginning. Next up from Trakus is something called VirtualTrak, which has yet to be fully rolled out. Viewers can choose to watch 3-D animated figures run around the track in real time, turning the racing presentation into something that looks very much like your typical video game. While this may seem to be a bit gimmicky, it does allow the viewer to watch the race from several different angles, including an overhead view and from a low shot that makes it appear that the viewer is actually riding one of the horses in the race.
"On the virtual race application that runs over the Internet, you have pan, zoom, tilt controls, so you can basically control exactly where the camera is as an individual user," McCarthy explained.
While that might not appeal to an older customer who is not computer savvy, it might just attract a younger fan who grew up playing PlayStation, Xbox, etc.
Another benefit is that charts at Trakus tracks will no longer a matter of guesswork. Currently, with the exception of the finish call, running lines are compiled by a person, who estimates the distance between each horse. A horse that the chartmaker believes is three lengths behind the leader could actually be four lengths behind. With Trakus, that sort of mistake can't happen. Trakus will also be able to tell people compiling data exactly how far from the inner rail a horse was racing on the turns, something that should prove useful for the companies that put out the speed figure sheets.
McCarthy said that Keeneland will be the next track to offer Trakus, which will debut there at the upcoming fall meet. He believes the time will come when a Trakus presentation is a staple at every racetrack. In the meantime, the expectation is that simulcast customers will gravitate to Woodbine and any other track using Trakus.
"Our market research tells us that if there is a consumer choosing between two screens, the one that has more consumer-friendly information will generally sway the vote," McCarthy said. "There will be consumers who will follow particular horses, races and tracks. But, in the short term, this is a really interesting tool for a track operator to use to sway handle in his favor. In the longer term, this type of information has a much more important aspect; that is, to reach new consumers and people who grew up playing video games."
Trakus takes some glamour away from the presentation. Racing is a beautiful sport and nothing beats watching a real horse run, including following chicklets or virtual horses. But the game is about betting and people need to see what they're betting on. With Trakus, they can.