10/28/2004 11:00PM

New charting system going through testing

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Bill Straus
A four-ounce transmitter in the saddlecloth will help track a horse.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Jockey Club, Equibase, and a British company called TurfTrax have been quietly conducting a test at Keeneland of a new electronic charting system that could eventually revolutionize handicapping information.

Ideally, the system will plot a horse's exact path around the racetrack using an array of antennas scattered throughout the facility and radio-frequency transmitters carried by each horse in the saddlecloth. The data could be offered in formats as varied as the number of horseplayers who use it.

"We are excited about the possibilities," said Phil O'Hara, the president of Equibase, in a recent interview. Equibase, a partnership of the Jockey Club and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, currently charts races at all North American racetracks and provides information to a number of handicapping companies, including Daily Racing Form.

The new system will need extensive testing before it will be used to gather official chart data. Jockey Club and Equibase officials said they could not provide a timetable for the testing process because of the uncertainties surrounding the new technology.

"Until we're absolutely certain that the system is reliable, accurate, and adequate for our purposes, we can't go forward," O'Hara said.

TurfTrax has agreements to use the new charting system at 12 racetracks in England, a company official said, and similar systems are used at auto-racing events around the world.

The testing in Kentucky would have likely been conducted far from the public eye if Keeneland had not needed to get approval from state regulators to conduct the test. Approval was required because the system uses four-ounce radio-frequency transmitters carried by each horse, which would have violated regulations about declaring the exact weight carried by horses.

Equibase officials declined to be specific about how the technology works, citing a confidentiality clause in their contract with the hardware and software developer, TurfTrax, which debuted a version of the system last week at Newmarket.

Officials declined to comment on what the hardware and software would cost or who would pay for it. The timing system would need to be in place at nearly every racetrack in North America to be most useful to handicappers, officials said.

O'Hara said that the new system is designed to give a horse's exact position, with a margin of error of 15 inches, three times a second. In a six-furlong race, that translates into approximately 330 data points for each horse, compared with four official points of call, not counting the break, in traditional past-performance data for a three-quarter-mile race.

After the tests are completed at Keeneland, analysts at Equibase will examine the data points to determine whether the information accurately shows how the horses ran. The test will also seek to determine the reliability of the system and whether it can operate in all forms of weather, officials said.

Equibase officials can generously be described as taking baby steps in the testing of the system, an indication of how sensitive the technology can be, politically and economically. Equibase chart-callers are now solely responsible for charting races.

Privately, Equibase employees at tracks have expressed fears that the system will replace chart-callers. Equibase officials have said that some form of human backup will be needed. The system also has to be proven reliable, without any gaps in data.

"The difference between us and say, Nascar racing, is that we need each data point to be absolutely accurate," O'Hara said. "We don't have the luxury of losing a car for 30 or 40 seconds."

In an interview at Keeneland, Tim Ricketts, the group managing director of TurfTrax, said that the new system at Newmarket allowed television broadcasters to show the position of 35 different horses in a recent race and that the data could be combined with measurements of wind, weather conditions, and the amount of moisture in the running surface.

"We can measure headwinds, tailwinds, very detailed measurements of the going, and we can combine all those layers to give you a very accurate indication of what is affecting a horse's form," Ricketts said.

The system promises a multitude of benefits, supporters say. One, the data will likely be far more accurate than the data that is currently collected. Under the current system, chart-callers, typically viewing races from the grandstand three or four stories above the racing surface, rely on their eyes and video replays to determine the positions of horses at different points of a race based on the distance from the leading horse, using margins that include heads, half-lengths, and full lengths. Additional calibrations of noses, necks, and three-quarter lengths are made by the photo-finish camera. The new system would allow horses' positions to be determined accurately at any point in the race, regardless of the relationship to the leading horse.

Second, the data would indicate how far a horse actually ran in a race. Nearly every horse runs farther than the published distance of a race because of ground lost around turns. The ground-lost factor is especially acute for horses running from outside posts in one-turn races.

The data could also indicate when a horse is accelerating or decelerating, and to what degree.

"You'll be able to go back through the data and see where a horse began decelerating, and see just how much that horse was decelerating," O'Hara said. "You'll be able to know exactly how badly that horse was stopped in a race, rather than just hearing that a horse was checked."

If the new system works as envisioned, handicappers might simply download the raw data into a specialized program and then construct a running line with information that is customized to the their preferences.

Ricketts said that the possibilities of how to use the data were almost limitless, but that a meaningful data base was required for testing.

"We don't, right now, have the history of these horses," Ricketts said, referring to the Keeneland tests. "There's lot of interesting things you can do with the data, but to put it into a form model, you'll need months of data."