Back to the Future

By T. D. Thornton -- News broke in August about the proposed Equibase plan to propel the sport into the future with real-time tracking of horses, merging tradition with technology.

But for anyone who wants a glimpse at the future, I'd suggest a cautious review of recent history, because theory and reality tend to collide head on in this industry, especially when ideas are both bold and expensive.

In 2000, I joined a British technology firm set to launch a new media start-up on the e-biz beltway outside of Boston, a dozen miles but worlds removed from the racetrack. The high-tech spinoff was RaceTrace, more concept than company at first, with seven figures in seed funding and the ambitious goal of ushering horse racing into the 21st century.

The firm's engineers had invented a highly accurate way to track movement, speed, and positioning by means of a radar tag about the size and weight of a wireless pager. Although the product could be applied to many sports, the innovators decided that United States racing would be the initial target. Even though they didn't know a shadow roll from a Tootsie Roll, they reasoned that our industry is about as far behind in the use of technology as a modern business can get while still remaining a viable entity.

Think not? Step back and consider the game the way the folks who wrote the RaceTrace business plan did: Does it make sense for players in a $15 billion betting environment to assess investments on the basis of subjective data supplied by some guy with binoculars on a roof? Is it rational, in a sport so crucially concerned with time, to clock Thoroughbreds by extrapolation based on breaking an electronic eye beam? RaceTrace was capable of supplying such previously unavailable statistics as "lost ground," "peak acceleration," and "sustained run" levels. Presumably, so too is the evolving Equibase system.

Great idea in theory, right?

Yet after a year of pitching RaceTrace to more than a dozen top-tier tracks, a slew of venture capitalists, and a select group of high net-worth individuals personally involved with racing, no one bought in on the concept.

Actually, that's only partly true. Many forward-thinking industry executives bought the concept wholeheartedly. It was the price tag to bring development to the next level--around $6 million--that scared them off.

Some of the maddeningly predictable reactions RaceTrace received from industry leaders linger long after the company's 2001 folding, making one wonder if those who call the shots understand, let alone value, technology as a reasonable means of advancing the sport.

This attitude was best summed by one racetrack CEO with four decades of experience, who, at an early pitch meeting, immediately dismissed the concept for fear that equipping jockeys with transmitters on their numbered armbands would "enable insiders to shoot laser beams at the horses."

An overly irrational reaction? Perhaps. But remember, many of the game's bigwigs descend directly from the same school of thought that vehemently believed television was a passing fad.

A look at technology trends abroad underscores how badly the U.S. lags in keeping up with its racing neighbors: In Europe, a program is underway to implant newborn foals with identification microchips. UK racing recently secured a $600 million media rights deal, part of which concerns "electronic data" broadcasts over hand-held devices. In the Far East, the Hong Kong Jockey Club employs 400 engineers and programmers in its information technology division alone, and recently solicited proposals for a system to track every single one of the 1,600 horses stabled on the grounds at Sha Tin and Happy Valley.

Judging by industry past performance, the root cause of U.S. racing's resistance to technology isn't that these ideas are too far ahead of the curve. Rather, it is the game itself that lags behind the times.

Like any gamble, there's a price to be paid for breaking off from accepted standards to try something new. Even riskier though, is the prospect of standing pat and doing nothing at all.

Good luck Equibase. I'm confident you have the horse, but not entirely certain you'll find an industry eager to bankroll the bet.

T.D. Thornton is a freelance writer based in Boston.