Innovation

Internet of horses: How Trakus sensors make the Kentucky Derby digital

Making a bet on Derby day? These sensors will tell you where your horse is during the race.

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Image: Erin Carson/TechRepublic

The Kentucky Derby is one of the most storied sporting events in the world. This year the race turns 142, and while there are many ways in which the Derby remains tied to tradition, there are also many way in which technology has changed the way the race is not only run, but enjoyed by viewers.

One of those ways is the presence of sensors in the saddlecloth of the horses. These sensors collect real-time data on the race, which gets turned into the graphics viewers see details which horse is in the lead, and which horse is losing your money.

So yes, even the horses are connected.

The company responsible is Trakus, a Massachusetts-based outfit that's tracked more than 80,000 races at racetracks all over the world, including Canada, Istanbul, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Australia, and more.

Trakus places an RF tag that's about half the size of a cell phone in the saddlecloths, said Bob McCarthy, president and CEO. Roughly 30 antennas around the outer perimeter of the racetracks collect data from the sensors. The system tracks each horse individually about 30 times a second from before they enter the gate to the post race and cool down.

That information then gets turned into graphics using a broadcast interface Trakus provides, which can be shown on video screens at the tracks, or even the simulcast signal going to the networks. Along the lower third is a 3D graphic, so that when the horses come around a turn, the graphic rotates accordingly.

All the electronics are controlled from Trakus' headquarters in Boston.

"Not only is that a way for the system activity to be monitored, but also that allows for a rapid publication of the data to the track's website," McCarthy said.

And all that data goes to a variety of places, like the Trakus iPad app, or Trakus' 3D photo realistic renderings of races that can be rendered as the race is run.

"We're trying to help the racing industry as a whole become more innovative without losing the basic element of the race that attracts the current demographics in racing," he said. At the same time, the younger generation is used to things like gaming and mobile experiences, and the industry can't miss out on that audience.

These days, Trakus operates exclusively in horse racing, but that wasn't always the case. It started as a spin out of MIT's business plan competition. They received an honorable mention, but were able to actually get the company started.

The technology was supposed to be suited for multiple sports like football, hockey, and eventually soccer. Any sport involving equipment would be more amenable to the inclusion of electronics. They got into motorsports and worked with NASCAR for a few years. They even put together an early version of what's known as the ShotLink system in golf that the PGA Tour uses to collect statistical data on players in real-time.

Trakus continued improving the technology so that it would work like GPS, but in places where GPS might not normally work.

What wasn't working, though, was the business model, McCarthy said. But, in the midst of this uncertainty for how to make the business work, around 2003, they got a call from the US Jockey Club.

The US Jockey Club had been looking for technology to track horses, but without much luck. The problem was that in order to have a reliable enough system, there needed to be electronics on the horse, or use some type of video processing system in order to make a digital record of the race. But, the horses run so close together, and the race is so short (just a few minutes), it posed a problem.

It took Trakus a few years to get the sensors right, and brought in new investments, along with a company overhaul, but they ended up focusing the company entirely on horse racing.

Now, they're hoping they can help create the future of horse racing.

"One thing that consumers are beginning to expect is, even if they're at the racetrack, they want to be using their iPad or their phone with a display that tells them where their horses are," McCarthy said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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