04/23/2008 11:00PM

Guesswork in charts on way out


NEW YORK - Horseplayers following Del Mar, Keeneland, and Woodbine may be sharply divided over the replacement of dirt with Polytrack at those ovals, but they are virtually unanimous in their support for another innovation at those three tracks: the Trakus system, which uses radio tags embedded in horses' saddlecloths to provide real-time positioning for each runner. Much as players like what the system currently does, it's about to get even better.

Trakus would be a worthwhile change if all it did was provide an accurate running order of the entire field during a race. This is a massive improvement on most tracks' manual system for displaying the numbers of the four leaders during the running of the race, which is not only inadequate but also frequently flat-out wrong.

Due to human error and to technologically primitive systems with built-in delays of five seconds between a placing judge pressing a button and the information reaching the television signal, the numbers on the screen are often a complete mismatch with what is actually happening. Trakus not only displays a complete and accurate running order, but also offers an animated display at the bottom of the screen, allowing a viewer to see his horse's progress even if he is currently out of the picture.

The next use of Trakus, beginning at Woodbine this summer, will be to collect similarly accurate internal points of call and margins in the charts of races. Despite relying heavily on this data when reading past performances, most players probably do not realize just how much approximation is involved in the current system of visual observation by a chart caller.

There are two issues with having human observers report these positions and margins. First, a precise camera is used only at the finish of a race, so even the most skilled chart callers are constantly rounding internal margins. A horse called with a three-length lead might actually be anywhere from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 lengths in front. Add up those margins of errors six or 12 times working your way through a field in motion, and the sum can be grossly misleading.

For example, in last Saturday's Coolmore Lexington Stakes, the margins estimated by chart callers had Behindatthebar a total of 15 lengths behind Samba Rooster after a first quarter in 22.78 seconds. Some handicappers using the easy but inaccurate scale of a length equaling a fifth of a second would put Behindatthebar 3.0 seconds behind, for a first quarter of 25.78. Those using the somewhat more precise yardstick where a length equals 0.17 seconds would have him 2.55 seconds behind, or 25.33. However, the Trakus transmissions (available on Keeneland's website) had Behindatthebar running his actual first quarter in 24.68. His first quarter was about 11 lengths slower than the leader's, not 15.

There's also a subtle but crucial difference between the photo-finish margins and internal points of call. When we say that a horse is five lengths off the lead after an opening half-mile, we're actually saying something very different from when a horse is officially beaten five lengths at the finish. At the internal call, the chart caller is estimating that the horse was five lengths behind the leader at the moment that the leader finished that opening half-mile. At the finish, we're saying that the beaten horse crossed the wire five lengths later than the winner did.

Here's one way to conceptualize this difference: A still photograph of the finish of the 1989 Kentucky Derby would show that at the precise moment Sunday Silence crossed the wire in front, Awe Inspiring was second and Easy Goer was third. In the next blink of an eye, Easy Goer passed his entrymate and officially finished second. Had the finish line been an intermediate call, Easy Goer would be reported as being third, three lengths back, rather than his official finishing position of second, 2 1/2 lengths "later" than the winner.

Trakus will provide the equivalent of a photo-finish camera at every point of call, providing both correct placings at every pole and, for the first time, truly accurate sectional splits for each horse. Especially amid the current shift to slower-paced racing on synthetic surfaces, where handicappers are finding that finishing ability and come-home times are of crucial importance, the information will be invaluable. The same goes for turf racing, where handicappers rely heavily on final fractions.

Don't fret over machines throwing people out of work: Even if the Woodbine experiment works and more tracks start collecting their chart data via Trakus, the chart callers will still be needed to assemble and transmit all the information and, most importantly, to continue writing comments on each horse's performance. In fact, those comments should only get better as the callers have the freedom to watch races more carefully instead of guessing at dozen of margins while the race is in progress.