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, October 02, 2018

The Cost of Technology or Lack Thereof

Once our data rich sport had a monopoly on legal betting but now sports betting is legal and is in direct competition with horse racing. The industry has a challenge on its hands: Call it the technological divide.

Horseracing is behind the curve because for years its leaders feared attaching any electronic device to a horse. That unrealistic fear has now abated, replaced by concerns that sports betting will take wagering dollars away from racing for distribution to other sports.

Horseracing lags behind the major sports leagues in the fields of data, tracking and analytics. Equibase, the data collection and dissemination arm of The Jockey Club that previously subsidized the installation of Trakus at North American racetracks is now working on a second generation tracking system to replace it.

Consider, however, that Trakus, a first generation tracking technology, was castoff long ago by the National Hockey League.

Equibase and British firm G Max have collaborated to provide race timing and an abundant amount of tracking information, manipulated by Total Performance Data for in-race and after race use.

Obviously, an accurate tracking system works to the benefit of bettors, jockeys, trainers and even the stewards, who could use tracking information to adjudicate fouls that occur during a race.

Trakus offers a decades-old Pong-like version of a horserace with its simplistic graphic representation of race position with different color boxes called chiclets which represent different colored saddlecloths worn by each horse.

But the new technology offers state-of-the-art graphics and additional information such as gate acceleration, increased or decreased speed within a race, stride length and frequency needed for real-time data for in-race wagering--if that ever becomes a thing in the U.S.

Delivery of this new data would greatly accelerate international wagering, delivering a much-needed shot in the arm; a new revenue stream that America’s horseracing industry desperately needs.

The mechanism in place is a satellite-based Global Positioning System that is currently used at many racetracks in England and at several North American tracks, including Golden Gate Fields, where it is the official timer.

Woodbine Racetrack, Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course also employ the system and Equibase is testing it to time workouts at the Keeneland fall meeting that begins Friday.

The accuracy of GPS has improved with the addition of dual-frequency receivers, but the level of accuracy is only down to a half-second. That may be good enough for tracking but is unacceptable for timing races.

A half second is worth anywhere between two or three lengths depending on the actual length of a horse and speed it is travelling. This imprecision would be woefully inadequate. The old point-to-point timing system with a light beam and electric eye might be old school but is clearly more precise, begging the question: Why time races with a system less than exact?

The first answer that leaps to mind is that it costs much less. But inaccuracy is not in horseracing’s best interests and is not worth the amount of money saved long term. All major sports leagues in America use second-generation tracking; none use a GPS-based procedure.

The National Football League uses Zebra MotionWorks, a radio frequency identification system (RFID), to track football players and the football itself. RFID is currently the gold standard for timing races.

Major League Baseball uses a combination of cameras and radar called Statcast. The National Basketball Association uses Sportsradar, another camera-based system. The NHL is in the final stages of developing its second generation tracking system, Ice Vision, a multi-camera system.

Racetrack logistics involves a much larger scope but does not preclude camera-based systems. In fact, tracks in New York already have more than a half dozen cameras around its racetracks. Most other racetracks employ several cameras, as well.

Equibase could do a great service to horseracing with improved data, graphics and analytics, but it shouldn’t if the cost is inaccurate race timing. Logic dictates a hybrid timing/tracking system is necessary.

Though in competition, Thoroughbred racing is embracing sports betting as it did casino gambling. After a few decades of experience with racinos, we now see the tail wagging the horse.

Add sports betting and horseracing now deals with an unwieldly two-tailed animal. We urgently need to tech up and do so before racing becomes an orphaned stepchild in its own home. But it cannot be done on the cheap.

Written by Mark Berner

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