Friday, May 4, 2012 Updated: May 5, 12:17 PM ET
Trakus brings the action to fans
By Claire Novak Special to ESPN.com
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It's the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Hansen skims the rail with an undisputed lead while even-money favorite Union Rags travels wide throughout. Swinging around three other horses, Union Rags charges down the center of the track, tires, drifts and misses catching Hansen by a head.
A Trakus tag charging unit.
He travels 78 more feet than the winner.
There are no runners' lanes in horse racing, and although an even start is usually provided to all, dynamics change once the gates open. A company called Trakus is now charting the metrics of the sport, going behind the actual performances of the runners to provide mainstream statistical data.
What SABRmetrics is to baseball, Trakus is to horse racing.
"The suggestion is he lost by a head, but he really covered the equivalent of a nine-length victory margin," said Pat Cummings, manager of racing information for the Wakefield, Mass.-based company.
We know more about the vast majority of Kentucky Derby contenders than ever before thanks to data collected by lightweight tags the size of a credit card, slipped into a pocket on the saddle towels worn by runners in their Derby preps. More accurate and immediate than GPS or other positioning systems, Trakus uses proprietary wireless communications to track the precise location of each horse, the average and peak speed, trip distance per segment and each runner's relative distance from the leader throughout the race.
Not all ovals use Trakus, which has worked in the sport for 10 years, but several big ones, including Churchill Downs, Keeneland and Gulfstream Park, have established agreements with the company to collect data. Tracks also implement the tracking system in other ways; racegoers can follow the action along on infield video screens as "chicklets" follow the horses in real time while races are run.
"We're only installed in a handful of tracks, but the broader the rollout becomes as we outfit more locations with technology, the more we'll be able to provide thorough statistics prior to races like this one," said Bob McCarthy, president of Trakus. "There's no bigger race than the Kentucky Derby, and this data brings a level of analytics that fans are used to receiving in other sports."
Trakus puts quantitative facts behind observational anecdotes. You can see a horse went wide, but how wide was his trip? You can see he horse lost a lot of ground, but how much ground did he actually lose?
With the speed data, individual sectional times now tell how strongly horses close. Traditional timing systems tell us how fast the leader has traveled at different points in the race but leave us guessing on the exact timing for the rest of the field. Consider Derby contender Dullahan, who won the Blue Grass Stakes on April 14. The Dale Romans trainee ran the final sixteenth of the race in 6.03 seconds to overtake the front-running Hansen, who slowed to complete that same distance in 6.49 while finishing second. It was the fastest final sixteenth of any horse tracked in this crop of 3-year-olds going up against each other.
Trakus is even helping trainers make key decisions on the Derby trail. Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher gave credit to the data as partial justification for entering Risen Star Stakes winner El Padrino despite a fourth-place finish in the March 31 Florida Derby last time out.
"We didn't think he ran horribly," Pletcher said. "He was only beaten two-and-three-quarter lengths, and according to Trakus, he traveled 68 feet [more than winner Take Charge Indy], so about 23 yards, which is a long way to travel and especially the way the track was playing, kind of towards inside speed. All in all, we thought it was a credible effort, [and] I think his overall body [of] work suggests that he still fits very well with the best 3-year-olds in his class."
The Trakus tags fit inside the saddle cloth.
"With Take Charge Indy glued to the rail with Calvin the whole time, El Padrino traveled 68 more feet than him," Cummings remarked. "The suggestion is that he covered the equivalent of eight lengths more than Take Charge Indy, a significant amount of extra ground, and if you normalized his run versus Take Charge Indy's, he's five lengths better than him."
Street Sense was the first Kentucky Derby winner tracked before the race. In the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland in 2006, he traveled 39 more feet than Great Hunter and 48 feet more than Circular Quay when finishing third, then turned the tables with a ground-saving trip inside at Churchill Downs in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Horse racing, a sport steeped in tradition and perennially lagging behind technology, is catching up in other ways, as well, thanks to the new data. McCarthy said he sees the sport stepping up to meet the expectations of a new generation of fans by providing iPhone- and iPad-accessible real-time streaming through his company. Applications that permit fans to follow a personal race feed to see whether their bets are in the money even as the race is being run are in development.
"In order to engage the next generation of fans, we need to work as a sport to deliver content in a way viewers can understand, at their fingertips," he said. "Racing is one of the few sports where the action is over and everyone's not even sure exactly what happened -- there's too much to keep up with. We try to bring a new dimension, allowing people to understand what's really going on in the race, especially while it's being run."
The company's online Virtual 3-D race simulator also adds another interactive angle -- over at the official Kentucky Derby site, fans can "ride" last year's winner with the jockey's-eye view of the race.
Who needs binoculars now?
Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.