Mark Berner

Mark Berner first worked with horses on a small farm in upstate New York in 1973, where he mucked stalls and cared for racehorses with infirmities that were turned out there until ready to resume training.

He joined American Teletimer as a clocker in 1976 and operated their electronic timing equipment at many east coast racetracks until 1978, when he was permanently stationed at NYRA's three tracks, Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park & Saratoga Race Course.

Berner did freelance handicapping for the New York Daily News in 1982 & 1983 before joining Newsday in 1984 as a handicapper and later a sports reporter. Berner teamed up with Pricci to win the United Press International's 1985 UPI New York Newspaper Awards for Best Sports Story. In addition, Berner wrote and handicapped for several trade publications including, Daily Racing Form, Sports Eye, Racing Action, The Thoroughbred Times, Horse Player Magazine and New York Sportsnet.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

For Racing, Correct Time for a Wakeup Call

The National Hockey League returns to regular season play tonight after the this weekend’s All Star Game in Tampa, where fans were given a preview of Ice Vision, its new multi-camera, 3-D 360 degree tracking system. It is light years ahead of the NHL’s old tracking system.

So, how exactly is this all relevant to Thoroughbred racing? Well, most horseplayers are very familiar with the NHL’s old technology which, in horseracing circles, is known as Trakus.

Though Ice Vision still needs fine tuning, it makes Trakus look like Pong, the rudimentary video game released in 1972. There is no reason horseracing in 2018 should be using a castoff technology from another sports league.

Horseracing is already a data-rich with the kind of information that makes racing a participatory sport, yet it has no graphic user interface in its digital footprint, a necessary link to lure youthful gamers to horse racing as sport.

Major sports leagues in the US already are gearing up for nation-wide sports betting and will have a huge advantage with computer aided graphical representations of each sport.

Racetracks and horseracing bet-takers want to be a hub for that action, but they will be woefully under-prepared when sports betting is legalized.

And there’s a better chance than ever before that today’s Supreme Court won’t stand in the way of states in which sanctioned legal gambling already exists at its racetracks and racinos.

Last year, Major League Baseball phased out PITCHf/x, introduced in 2006, in favor of Statcast, a newer and more advanced system that tracks the ball and players by using a combination of radar and cameras.

The National Football League has used Zebra Technologies’ MotionWorks as its official on-field player-tracking system since 2014.

MotionWorks uses radio frequency identification (RFID) to capture high-speed player data and convert it into real-time, usable statistics. This season the NFL inserted RFID tags into footballs.

The National Basketball Association has a new distributor for its statistical information and its player tracking data this season. Sportradar also uses a multi-camera system, replacing STATS SportsVu’s roof-mounted cameras.

Of course, STATS already has broken into racing with its Race Lens past performance product.

Horseracing in France is about to move into the future with Epiqe Tracking, an immersive land-based GPS system with only a 300 millisecond delay from transmitter to screen. Epiqe has achieved what it considers a required level of accuracy equaling 25 centimeters, slightly less than 10 inches.

Epiqe Tracking, used for harness racing as well as Thoroughbreds, has had successful trials at Chantilly and it will debut this year at the reopening of Longchamps in April.

Not only has tracking technology advanced, equipment has vaulted ahead with the advent of the smart whip. Based in Turkey, ESIT Elektronik has created a product called WhipChip, which counts the number of times a jockey employs the whip and measures the force of each stroke.

While other sports are using or developing second-generation tracking systems, horseracing on this continent has based its future on a previously discarded first generation tracker.

As a handicapper, I would like to know information that’s not yet available, such as how fast a horse accelerates from the gate, getting an instant assessment of a track’s bias in miles per hour.

I also want to know the speed necessary to keep up while racing wide, and more, I want it in real time. It would be a great advantage in judging race-time conditions and adjusting the handicapping process accordingly.

It would be easy enough to download an app onto a phone or computer, which will assist modern day handicappers and perhaps attract a new and wider audience.

It won’t be long before graphics can be viewed on virtual reality headsets that would provide a 3-D image in 360 degrees.

Richie Havens, legendary singer-songwriter who opened the Woodstock Music Festival, was also an artist, inventor and racing fan. Havens shared a similar vision with me at a Belmont Stakes press party 30-plus years ago.

Somewhere in my attic is a copy of his presentation in which he envisioned a race fan watching races in 360 degrees on a swivel chair while enclosed in a circular booth, with all the racing footage shot from infield.

Years later, I asked him whatever became of that model and, flashing his large signature smile, said, “I sold it to Viacom.”

Two major racetracks in North America--Gulfstream Park in Florida and Woodbine Race Course in Toronto--have used Trakus but both are looking to go back to hard-wired timing systems until a consistently accurate wireless system is developed for racing.

Why racing is saddled with Trakus and its old technology is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. In brief, the Trakus system, which is endorsed by The Jockey Club, is more economically friendly.

Trakus tracks are subsidized financially by The Jockey Club. Many horseplayers would argue that the TJC is getting exactly what they are paying for while the customer is paying a steeper price by using inconsistent data.

If horseracing is to survive in a marketplace replete with stiff competition from sports betting franchises that provide a better experience via the latest technology, it will have to join the 21st century.

With no central authority and 38 states each having different racing rules, horseracing has neither the leadership nor funds to move forward effectively yet, as Walter Kelly’s Pogo counsels: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Racing will need to embrace technology whatever the high cost. Pay now or there may be no later. At risk is racing’s loss of its long and storied past to other forms of sports entertainment that knew enough to keep up with the times.

ELMONT, NY, January 30, 2018

Written by Mark Berner

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