Technology supports competitors and enhances viewing of the Kentucky Derby without influencing or predicting the outcome.

Dan Carney, Senior Editor

May 3, 2023

6 Min Read
2012 Kentucky Derby NBC Sports Group.jpg
Horses head into turn one in the 2012 Kentucky Derby.NBC Sports Group

Technology continues to influence sporting events and fans’ ability to enjoy them, as demonstrated by the annual Run for the Roses at the Kentucky Derby.

Technology’s influence on the outcome of the Derby isn’t as direct as in the case of carbon fiber tennis racquets, for example. Human racing times have been trimmed in recent years by the emergence of shoes like the Nike Vaporfly that claim to put energy back into the runner’s step. Fortunately, horse racing has been spared these kinds of advancements, so times remain comparable to those run by horses in the past.

Call to the Post

Instead, we have things like the automatic starting gate that helps the races get off to a fair start for all competitors. It was invented by Clay Puett in 1939, and his company, True Center Gate continues to provide horse racing starting gates.

Unless it rains and spoils the preparation, the track surface at Churchill Downs is monitored by The Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory. The non-profit group employs tools including a robotic hoof device to measure the firmness and stability of the track surface to minimize the likelihood of injury.

Before the start of this year’s race, horses will be more relaxed because there won’t be any noisy combustion-powered equipment working around the track and the barns. Instead, Sunbelt Rentals is providing electric machines to let the horses avoid exposure to noisy machines as they prepare for the big race.

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Down to the Wire

When the horses cross the finish line, we can thank the invention of photo-finish cameras for helping confirm the true race winner in the event of a close contest. Lorenzo del Riccio’s 1937 invention of the strip camera for photo finish results has helped to settle bets by showing which horse’s nose got to the line first. It debuted at the Del Mar Turf Club in California and was subsequently featured in Scientific American.

The ability to settle bets is crucial in horse racing, because of the popularity of betting on results. But what if technology could accurately predict the outcome ahead of time, letting bettors cash in no matter how fast the horses themselves run? Could advancing artificial intelligence correctly forecast the Kentucky Derby’s results?

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Betting Big

This happened in 2016, when the Unanimous A.I. correctly predicted the top four horses, completing the Kentucky Derby superfecta bet. But since then, Ais have not taken over. Even the latest generation of generative AI is not well equipped for making this call. A big obstacle currently is that ChatGPT faces is that its data only includes events up until Sept. 2021, so it isn’t familiar with the horses running.

Betting site Twinspires trained a model of the 2005 Derby to see whether ChatGPT could succeed using data that it does have. After 10,000 simulations, the AI liked pre-race favorite Bellamy Road, who ultimately finished seventh in the race. The AI gave actual 2005 race-winner Giacomo a 6.22 percent chance of winning. So, for now, the future is as mysterious to AI as it is to the rest of us.

Television viewers of the race shouldn’t be mystified, however, thanks to the ever-improving technology NBC uses to showcase the horses.

Eye in the Sky

In a pre-race press conference, NBC’s senior producer of horse racing on the Kentucky Derby, Lindsay Schanzer, addressed questions about how technology is improving the viewing experience for fans who can’t make the trip to Kentucky.

Q: From a tech side, a cinematic camera will be used. What do you think it will be used for, and what do you think it will add to the broadcast?

Lindsay Schanzer: We’re trying it out this year. I think for the most part we’re going to focus on the events outside the racing side of things. We’re going to get a shot on the races as well, but for the most part, we’re looking for it to cover the flavor, the fashion, all of the color in and around Churchill Downs, and what makes this one of the greatest events in American sports.

We’ll see that throughout the coverage. Celebrities, what they’re wearing, what they’re drinking, what they’re eating, all the people around, the hats they’re wearing. We’re expecting to pepper it throughout the broadcast to really give you the flavor of this event.

Q: Last year the aerial replay drew so many views on social media, the view from the Winged Vision Cessna that was 2,500 feet in the sky and got this great view. Have there been any technical advances?

Lindsay Schanzer: Absolutely we’ll lean into it. From an advancement standpoint, not specifically. The technology honestly is great. It works really well. We haven’t used it too much in the past, in part because we haven’t had a setup as exciting as Rich Strike to show how he came all the way through the pack and weaved in and out of horses through the stretch.

But to your point, we know that people really paid attention to it and liked it. I think one of the things I’m thinking about going into this broadcast is to spend a little bit more time up in the air on race replays as it is. It’s a different look. People aren’t used to it. It really shows the perspective of the field and how moves are made.

Even if it’s not a move being made in between horses, the separation from a horse that wins by a lot. I’m hoping you can expect to see a lot more aerial coverage within this year’s show. And we do have the iso track system back in case we get another exciting weave like Rich Strike.

Q: Can you talk about the technology and anything that’s advanced in that or anything you’ve been told regarding that?

Lindsay Schanzer: We’ve got great pilots up in the air who will be flying that Winged Vision plane, and we’ll track horses along the way. As fast as we can get it to you, we’ll turn it around.

We also have drone coverage. Per restrictions, they don’t fly directly over the horses. It’s not that same perspective. The aerial perspective from the Rich Strike viral clip was the aerial camera as opposed to drone coverage.

We’ll continue utilizing that. I’m not sure about advancements beyond that specifically at this point, but we’re pretty happy with the coverage that we have.

About the Author(s)

Dan Carney

Senior Editor, Design News

Dan’s coverage of the auto industry over three decades has taken him to the racetracks, automotive engineering centers, vehicle simulators, wind tunnels, and crash-test labs of the world.

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