04/11/2013 12:33PM

Farms invest in technology to enhance equine security

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One of the essential and time-honored aspects of Thoroughbred breeders’ day-to-day operations – security – is, along with the rest of 21st-century business, undergoing a transformation in the digital age.

The images of a night watchman making his solitary rounds among the stallion barns and of veterinarians and foaling attendants working unobtrusively as they assist in an early-morning birth are familiar to breeders, who have traditionally relied on the human element to ensure their horses’ safety and well-being.

While the eyes and ears of a dedicated employee are still essential to barn security in 2013, a growing number of horse farms are investing in sophisticated camera and surveillance equipment to provide enhanced security for their bloodstock and to add an extra level of service for their clients.

When WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky., unveiled its new stallion complex in early February, among the many elements were multimedia kiosks and high-definition televisions in the main lobby designed to provide clients and visitors with more information about the company’s racing and breeding services.

Just as important, WinStar upgraded its camera surveillance system to meet the needs of its expanded roster of 22 stallions (including seven added from Vinery this year) and to offer greater accessibility to both WinStar staff and the farm’s breeding partners via mobile technology.

“In our old stallion barn, we had cameras, but it was a little bit of a mixed bag,” WinStar General Manager Chris Baker said. “Some of it was closed circuit, where our security people could split a screen 16 ways and see entry and exit in every stall. We had a couple of cameras that were Internet-ready, where our stablemates could access [video] on the Web, and we recorded all of our breedings, but primarily for DVD.

“At the new stallion complex, we put in all Internet-ready cameras – there’s one in every stall. And we now have software installed that enables the stallion manager, the director of stallion operations, [and staff] to access video on an iPad or iPhone, where you can scroll through and look at each horse in the stall.”

Thus, when they leave, the farm’s staff members are still able to keep watch on any stallion who may be dealing with minor illness or other issues by using the software on their mobile phone or tablet.

According to Gregory Davis, who has worked with horse farms on their video installations for more than two decades and supervised the WinStar upgrade, the farm’s new camera system is designed to provide both a live video feed for on-site surveillance and a recordable signal with a dedicated IP (Internet protocol) address that could then be sent to staff members’ mobile devices and uploaded onto a server and then to the Internet on a delayed basis for clients to access.

“What this allowed us to do is to send out an IP signal to iPads and iPhones and to guard centers, and then send out to the Internet for people such as owners to log into and look at their horses,” Davis said.

The trick, he said, was implementing a camera security system that had dual capability, because while the farm’s staff needed a 24/7 live feed for obvious reasons, the signal sent to the IP address needed to operate on a delay in case a major incident were to occur with one or more horses.

While Davis acknowledges that installation needs vary from farm to farm – “Some need a Ferrari, some require a Ford,” he said – for the more cutting-edge projects, he uses manufacturers such as Axis Communications, which specializes in IP signal cameras for a variety of settings (fixed or standard, dome, outdoor, thermal), and partners with United Digital Technologies, which offers planning and design services as well as a product catalog featuring many leading hardware and software companies.

In addition to the WinStar project, Davis continues to work with central Kentucky operations such as Darley at Jonabell Farm and Josephine Abercrombie’s Pin Oak Stud, which he identified as a leader in making the transition to digital media-based wireless systems.

This transition to wireless is based as much on the simple passage of time as on a hunger for new products, according to Davis.

In recent years, the aging copper infrastructure embedded in the ground to connect farms’ video security systems has become unreliable. Farms such as WinStar and Pin Oak have made the transition to what Davis terms a “wireless backbone” to connect all of their services under one mobile, interactive system impervious to physical decay.

Over a period of time, Pin Oak has undertaken an extensive project to transform its communications network, said John Backer, the farm’s chief financial officer. The installation costs were considerable, but Backer said the farm’s management made the investment with an eye on a wireless future.

“I’m working with about a 25-year-old infrastructure, which is all buried copper to support, mainly, phone intercoms,” Backer said. “We’re at the point where the copper has started to deteriorate whenever you get water infiltration, or lightning, or just the forces of nature...As the technology became available, I was willing to try to link our LAN [local area network] wirelessly as opposed to continue to put money into an old system.”

Pin Oak’s network allows for voice, data, and video transmission via the LAN, and Backer said the technology offers users an unprecedented level of accessibility and control as they make decisions about equine health and security. This benefits veterinarians, who can record and transmit data via tablet or phone from the foaling barn to their office and back again, as well as farm staff, who can work quickly and efficiently as they monitor their horses from multiple and mobile vantage points.

“As far as our cameras, our higher-end equipment is for our stallion facility,” Backer said. “We use wireless IP cameras for our foaling, so we can move them. We don’t feel like we need a camera in each stall, but as a mare gets closer to foaling, we’ve got a series of cameras that are easily movable because they’re wireless. All you have to do is have a power source. [The cameras] are also infrared – you don’t have to have a light source, so you are not disturbing the mare by having a light on in the stall. It’s all about the care of the horse.”

Despite these innovations in communications and security technology, stud farms at their core still rely on an experienced staff with comprehensive knowledge of equine health and safety. Even operations such as WinStar and Pin Oak that have taken the next-generation plunge acknowledge the importance of well-trained professionals on the grounds.

“You can have the greatest system in the world, but the funnel or filter that it all needs to come through is a steady human eye,” WinStar’s Baker said. “How often are they looking at the horses, and what are they looking for? Do they know what they’re looking for? The human element can be a point of strength or a point of weakness, depending on who you have...and that’s why, for a lot of people, the cost of the [upgraded] system can almost be cost-prohibitive because, regardless of the system that you put in, somebody still has to look at the horses.”