Tracking technology revealing arcane truths about horse races

Keeneland was the first American racetrack to use Trakus technology to monitor speed, distance covered and location of horses during races.
Keeneland was the first American racetrack to use Trakus technology to monitor speed, distance covered and location of horses during races.

It is deceptively simple in its casing — a 2.8 ounce plastic tag, color coded to a corresponding number; a credit card-sized bundle of wireless technology slipped into horses' saddlecloths at 12 race meetings worldwide.

At its inception, the revolutionary system known as Trakus was developed to help fans follow a sport that takes place at a distance.

In the years since it has been part of the Thoroughbred racing landscape, the tracking technology has gone beyond merely helping patrons keep tabs on their rooting interests.

Trakus has become relevant to virtually all the participants involved in an average race day.

First installed at Toronto's Woodbine in 2006 and first implemented in America at Keeneland weeks later, Trakus uses a wireless tag slipped into a saddlecloth to provide detailed information regarding the position and speed of every horse in a race, information that is digitally displayed in various forms.

In gathering positional data, Trakus also provides just how many feet a horse traveled during a race — a tool both horsemen and horseplayers have come to use in evaluating the quality of a horse's effort.

Now used on three continents, Trakus data provide hard-core evidence to support generic excuses and anecdotal beliefs.

A perceived wide trip might not have been damning as it seemed to the naked eye, a supposed rail bias can be confirmed, and a horse that finished well might have just been reeling in a weary bunch.

"As an industry, I think we're trying to engage new fans and be able to extend the amount of information for the more experienced players, and I think Trakus can have a role in that endeavor," said Bob McCarthy, president of the Massachusetts-based Trakus. "In reaching new fans by creating visual enhancements that allow viewers to more easily follow their horses and more visually handicap ... Trakus can do a pretty good job filling in, in addition to the interpretation of the race, stuff that takes the race down to a quantitative level.

"I think we can really work with the industry to reach new fans and automate the kind of things that more experienced players use as an everyday tool."

'Invaluable' information for owners

Trakus technology recently sparked an argument as to why a beaten favorite should be named a champion. It can also allow a bettor to unearth a major score, and entertain track patrons while simultaneously aiding them in following the action.

When Grade I winner Union Rags suffered a head defeat to eventual champion Hansen in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the fact Trakus' data revealed the former traveled 78 feet farther than his conqueror was used by the Union Rags camp as part of the rally cry that their horse ran the better race and should have earned the Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male.

Though trainer Mark Casse saw his eventual Kentucky Derby starter Prospective defeated in the Grade III Sam F. Davis earlier this year, the revelation that the colt traveled some 40-odd feet more than winner Battle Hardened gave Casse confidence the tables could be turned next time out — a theory proved true when Prospective subsequently triumphed in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby.

"I think the information Trakus generates for us as owners is invaluable ... although a lot of times, the data makes me cry," said Jerry Crawford, managing partner of Donegal Racing which owns multiple Grade I winner Dullahan. "We use it a lot in determining what the instructions are going to be (in a race). But it is also taking the sport to a breakthrough point in terms of presenting the game to a whole new generation of media.

"I just wish I were a shareholder."

Devoted horseplayers are always seeking insight that goes beyond what a horse's past performance tells them. To that end, Trakus has been seen as a welcome addition, particularly when handicapping synthetic and turf races.

If bettors and horsemen appreciate the statistics Trakus generates, casual fans often enjoy watching the product in action. The colored tiles, or "chiclets," that are displayed on infield screens show where even the deepest closer is, but many get just as enthralled watching the accompanying animated horses digitally playing out each entrant's progress in a race.

"Trakus is a two-headed beast in that what you see on the television monitors and then the data you see presented after the races that's used for handicapping are appealing to two completely different audiences, but they're both effective," said Jeremy Plonk, co-owner of the Horse Player NOW Web site. "The 'chiclets' and the display on the screen and how you follow it are very effective to the newcomers.

"When it comes to the track data ... that's more for the hard-core fan and the handicapper and that's great. Any technology that is just for the newbies is probably a lot of money without a lot of gain. So if you can put a technology out there that not only benefits the newcomer but the core customer of horse racing, which is the bettor, I think that's a good product."

Santa Anita Park, host of this year's Breeders' Cup World Championships, has become the latest domestic track to install Trakus, joining the likes of Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs, and Del Mar.

Yet, all of the New York tracks and other stalwarts like Oaklawn, Arlington and Monmouth Park have yet to sign on. For a product with seemingly little downside, the main holdup to widespread Trakus implementation at all major tracks appears to be cost.

"The reason the money question is a tough one is because every track is different — where it's located, what individual challenges they need to fulfill," said Pat Cummings, business manager for Trakus. "What's great is that everyone has an opinion about what it is they like about Trakus. But no one says, 'I don't like this.' So I think it's just a matter of time, a matter of resources and resource availability. Obviously, we want to be everywhere."

G.D. Hieronymus, director of broadcast services for Keeneland — which opens its Fall Meet on Friday — says the more tracks using the technology, the more data for fans of the sport.

"One of the best things about Trakus is the fact the data that it takes in allows you to do many things with it, and I believe they've only scratched the surface with that," he said. "I think as you get more tracks with Trakus, it's going to lead to more information on horses who have competed on a track with this data. It's so tough to do when we have such a short race meet here, and ... you don't have enough data on a field of horses to figure those runs in there, if you will. Imagine a hypothetical race where I could put 10 horses in and have consistent data from tracks that all have the same technology."