09/27/2006 12:00AM

Woodbine's modified TV coverage is annoying


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Handicappers should consider bringing their binoculars to Woodbine if they want to keep close tabs on their horses. Two weeks ago Woodbine modified its television coverage, inserting camera cuts that go back and forth between showing the entire field and a tight shot of the leaders, which makes watching races unnecessarily aggravating.

Woodbine's television coverage reached an all-time low in last Friday's fifth race, a 1 1/16-mile route with a large field. The upper pan camera kept weaving all over the place throughout the race, and even cut out most of the field on the first turn. Tight shots of the front-runners at the three-quarter pole and the three-eighths pole only added to the confusion.

In last Sunday's second race, the top two-thirds of the screen went black for several seconds as the runners came out of the first turn.

The Grade 1 Woodbine Mile on Sept. 17 was also hard to watch. Several close-ups of the leaders excluded the eventual top three finishers, along with the favorite, which is inexcusable in one of the biggest races of the meeting.

The changes coincided with the implementation of Trakus, a wireless tracking system developed by the Boston-based Trakus Inc. It involves placing a lightweight radio transponder in each horse's saddlecloth before each race.

Antennae mounted around the racetrack pick up the signals, and the data is used to present new graphics for Woodbine's live television race displays.

Each horse is represented by a small square, commonly referred to as a "chicklet," in a color corresponding to the saddlecloth number. The chicklets occupy the bottom portion of the television display, identifying the position of each horse throughout the race.

Andrew Macdonald, Woodbine's vice president of marketing and customer communications, said he is monitoring the racing coverage.

"We're currently looking at both the camera angles we use and the size of the Trakus display, as well as the replays that we show," Macdonald said recently.

Putting Trakus on the bottom of the simulcast television coverage has drawn mixed reviews. The majority of the horseplayers I talked to abhor it in its current state, but there are some who love it such as trainer Roger Stein, who hosts a weekly Southern California radio show.

"There is nothing not to like about Trakus," said Stein, who felt changing the icons might spruce the presentation up a little. "I'm not sure chicklets are the best icons to use. Why not use cartoon style versions of actual horses? It would make it almost an animated race, one that anyone could use in many ways to help view what is happening more accurately."

The information Trakus gathers, such as the distance each horse travels, will eventually be posted online.

"I think the big merit of Trakus is that it's an information-gathering system," said Woodbine racing analyst Jim Bannon. "We haven't seen the fruit of that yet. The data collected about velocity, ground loss, and stuff like that, I think will be very significant."

Bannon said novices have benefited from Trakus, perhaps at the expense of seasoned handicappers.

"The purists feel that they've lost something from the picture quality of the live racing at the expense of having the Trakus system on there," Bannon said. "I think I agree with that. The people who don't watch races closely, or don't watch them with binoculars, all of a sudden they've discovered that they can find their horse. I think that's a big aid to them."

Animation provided by Trakus has been used on some of Woodbine's network broadcasts for replay purposes.

"The interactive replays for TV are proving to be quite beneficial, in that you can show aerial shots and side shots," Bannon pointed out. "You can show the path that the horse took to win, and you can be the jockey on the horse that wins."

Many believe that Trakus belongs on separate televisions, so that horseplayers can have their choice of what they want to watch. Putting Trakus alone on selected televisions throughout the track, instead of on all of them, is a no-brainer.

As for the real part of the television product, Woodbine should take a page from Fort Erie's excellent coverage, which is easy to follow. Unlike Woodbine, Fort Erie refrains from panning way back when the horses are spread out. Fort Erie drops the trailers from the screen when they are too far back, which gives viewers a much better look at the horses in contention.

Woodbine's television coverage needs some major revamping in order to give handicappers a good view of the actual horses.