Does harness racing need to upgrade teletimers?
story by James Witherite
Baseball has long been heralded as “a game of inches,” given the frequency of bang-bang plays at first base—and the inevitable scrutiny they face. Harness racing similarly has its fair share of close calls, with a scant inch so often the difference between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
While horse racing has long employed photo-finish technology and video replay to ensure correct finishing orders and accurate returns to horsemen and horseplayers, the North American Standardbred sport in particular still reports race times in fifths of seconds, while largely using time-keeping technology developed in the first half of the 20th century.
And, as for that scant inch? In a 1:52 mile, an inch of separation would render competitors only 0.0018 seconds—eighteen ten-thousandths of a second—apart.
Yet, in practice, horses who finish up to three-quarters of a length apart are credited with the same time in past performance lines. Steven Crist illustrated the quandary perfectly in his June 20, 1989, New York Times column, shortly after Belmont Park switched to reporting running times in hundredths of seconds:
“On May 13 (1989) at Belmont, Valid Gunite ran six furlongs in 1:10 and J. R.’s Gift was timed in 1:10.17,” he said. “Those times were a full length apart, but in fifths they were represented as identical at 1:10 flat.”
The short-lived Racing Times quickly embraced the advance, publishing times in hundredths in the early 1990s before Equibase and the Daily Racing Form followed suit later that decade when more Thoroughbred tracks across the continent joined the movement. Thirty years after Belmont Park improved the precision of their race timing, however, North American harness racing re-mains behind the times, as a USTA rule proposal to have races timed in hundredths of seconds was accepted in 2015 but its implementation tabled shortly thereafter.
“The rule passed and we did the programming work necessary to accommodate and reflect the new format in the past performance lines,” Mike Tanner, executive vice president and CEO of the USTA, said. “There were concerns raised from certain jurisdictions and one or two racetracks about its implementation, however, and it was decided to delay introduction. It’s been on hold since then, but it wouldn’t take us very long to get back up to speed if everyone were on the same page.”
Ever since the American Teletimer Corporation developed their industry-standard split-beam timing system in 1938, accurate raw timing data has been nearly guaranteed for every race contest-ed—at least as far as the leader is concerned—to the hundredth of a second in Thoroughbred racing and even to the thousandth of a second in American Quarter Horse racing.
That being said, when and if everyone does get on the same page to bring timing of North American harness races to a 21st-century level of precision, a Pandora’s box of further issues will stand in the way of assuring accurate timing data for every horse in every race unless the existing system for generating that data is reworked from its foundation.
At a vast majority of Standardbred racetracks, sectional times for individual horses are derived from the leader’s sectional times and the aggregated margins between horses recorded by the chart caller at those points. Even when employed by the most astute of chart callers, this method is imprecise at best, and the decades-old rule of thumb in Standardbred racing that one length equals one-fifth of a second has long been rendered archaic.
At exactly that rate, it would take a horse that measures eight feet from nose to hind quarters 2 minutes and 12 seconds—far slower than a vast majority of modern-day races—to cover one mile. Meanwhile, in Always B Miki’s world-record 1:46 race at Red Mile, his :26.1 last quarter would be accurately reflected by a rate of 0.159 seconds per length, or 6.298 lengths per second.
Fortunately, the technology needed to elevate accuracy along with precision does exist, but is the financial investment worth the return from increased betting turnover?
“It seems to me that we should be able to time all the horses at several points of call to the hundredth of a second and know within a few feet how far the horse actually traveled to get to each point,” Craig Milkowski of the Daily Racing Form and TimeformUS said. “But there are financial considerations, and given the health of the sport—both Standardbred and Thoroughbred—few are going to make the investment at this point in time.”
Two tracks who have recently made the investment are Woodbine Mohawk Park and Harrah’s Hoosier Park, both employing Trakus, which uses triangulation and radio frequencies transmitted by sensors in each horse’s saddle pad to determine their paths through a given race.
“The tracking of horses and the ground covered during the race is a good thing, but I don’t think it is all that accurate,” Milkowski said.
While the data generated through Trakus may still lack the pinpoint precision of split-beam timing, and while dropped transponders and radio interference keep the system from being 100 per-cent foolproof, it effectively thwarts the existing human error in determining margins at points of call, extrapolating sectional times, and accounting for extra ground each individual horse covered.
“It is better than what we have now, though,” Milkowski said.
Trakus may have but a small footprint in harness racing, but it ultimately has withstood the test of time better than Autochart, a timing system employed at Freehold Raceway from 2005 to 2010 and at Harrington Raceway from 2007 until 2011 that recorded individual split times and margins for every horse in a race every eighth of a mile by way of sensors embedded in head numbers. Despite its usefulness in theory, a combination of persistent technological bugs and financial concerns led to the discontinuation of Autochart timing at both facilities.
While it lacks the automatic identification of Trakus and Autochart, the most reliably accurate and precise method of ascertaining individual sectional times for each horse in a given race may well be the one with the earliest debut: In 2003, American Teletimer teamed up with The Meadowlands to install wireless photo finish cameras at each point of call around their one-mile oval—four cameras in addition to the one in place at the winning post. These, in conjunction with the split-beam timing system already in place, enabled accurate reporting of each horse’s time at each split point down to the thousandth of a second.
Despite the increasing accessibility of tracking and global positioning technology in consumer-grade products (smartphones and fitness trackers come to mind), and with the exception of the Meadowlands, Woodbine Mohawk Park and Harrah’s Hoosier Park, the concerns regarding return on investment raised by Milkowski may well have proven to be the obstacle preventing North American harness racing from adopting these innovations on a wider scale for the benefit of horseplayers.
That being said, one prominent racing analyst believes that early unrest over increased timing precision at the Meadowlands in the 1990s may have made other leaders in the game gun shy, but also that the best tools afforded the player lie beyond the stopwatch.
“They go to hundredths and John Bothe says, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘The quarter in :27.43; the half in :55.34.’ Surely something completely different,” longtime Chicagoland racing analyst Michael Antoniades said. “They got barraged with phone calls so badly that by the third race he was back to announcing everything the way he had been announcing it all his life. And I think because it happened at the Meadowlands, everybody was very resistant to move.”
Furthermore, despite the uncertainty surrounding whether North American harness racing will not only adopt more precise timing methods across the board but also make the necessary changes to ensure that chart data is held to the increased scrutiny that comes with increased precision, Antoniades is resolute that information exists for horseplayers that is much more important than time—no matter how precise.
“I still don’t mind fifths of a second, just because I’m not at all a time person,” Antoniades said. “I was a big-time disciple of time variants in the 1980s and 1990s, but I think now what you need is angles that the public doesn’t notice. More than that, I think everything that you see in the stretch is fairly irrelevant. The horse that you saw boxed in 30 years ago, everyone sees that horse boxed in and bets accordingly to the point where if you watch a track you’ve never played, you know the horse was boxed in by the first flash. My opinion is that you almost never get paid based on what you see in the stretch; you get paid on what you see in the middle half, and that’s where times are really interesting.
“The things that people don’t notice are the things that happen in the middle half of the race. If a race went :28, :55, 1:22 and 1:52, it’s fairly irrelevant what happens in the stretch, isn’t it? But what is relevant with the horse that got a second-over trip that looks like he got a perfect trip and flat-tened out is that he was absolutely exhausted from chasing fast fractions in the middle part of the race. That’s where time is relevant to me.”
Lastly, Antoniades argued that not even the most precise of raw data is capable of telling the en-tire story, citing the difficult-to-quantify effects of wind, weather and daylight on the time of a given race.
“Sometimes the clock tells the truth, but obviously when there’s wind, it doesn’t,” he said. “These are the little intricacies of wagering that make the game so much fun. A 2:00 mile on one day was a 1:56 mile on another; a 1:52 mile on Hambletonian day might be a little slower.”
A shift to more precise reporting of race times would arguably go a long way in moving the op-tics of harness racing into the 21st century, but regardless of one’s own opinions on the importance of such a shift—and the necessary retooling of the entire body of in-race data that must accompany for paramount accuracy, no matter the manner in which it is derived—the main concern remains the long-held constant in horse racing: return on investment. HB
James Witherite is a freelance writer living in Delaware. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.