The Kentucky Derby has always been about flair, but it's usually the old world kind — hats and songs and horses. This year's Run for the Roses offers an audacious 21st century contrast with a colossal new 4K video board that will forever change how spectators view this 140 year-old cultural experience.
Oh, and it took a massively impressive IT project to pull it off, too.
It's magical here during the first week of May. The air in Louisville, Kentucky is thick with pride.
It's also thick with the sweet scent of bourbon, the distinct smell of cheap cigars, and, admittedly, quite a bit of depravity.
We celebrate a two-minute horse race for two weeks. The Kentucky Derby is the pinnacle of our holidays, the peak of our spring here in the Commonwealth. It is a source of infectious energy. It is indulgence in traditional Southern culture in the truest sense of the phrase. It's sore feet, scratchy throats, empty wallets, stacked glasses, seersucker suits, and flamboyant hats. It's 12 million dollars in cash bets in one day, and 150,000 strangers unified by one song and theme - "My Old Kentucky Home."
This year, for the 140th running, the Derby has gotten even flashier. Churchill Downs is well known for the Twin Spires, but it will also soon be known for its place in the digital future. The iconic race track has partnered with Panasonic to install the largest ultra high definition 4K video screen in the world on the backstretch of the track.
The "Big Board," as they call it, is part of Churchill Downs' race against time to modernize and remain relevant.
"In the past, we had about 2,200 televisions on site, and we rented seven to 10 large video screens and put them around the property, but you never really got that awe-inspiring look from a video standpoint." said Ryan Jordan, the general manager of Churchill Downs. "So we wanted to figure out what we could do so that everyone here could actually see and understand and follow the action."
Those old video screens Churchill used to showcase betting odds and races are about a tenth of the size of the Big Board. Most people squinted to see them in the glare of the midday sun as the first call to post was sounding. Until now, people in the infield couldn't even hear the races - many came and went, never seeing a horse on Derby day. Thanks to the Big Board and 750 new speakers installed throughout the facility, the infield crowd will now experience the race even better than if they were watching it on their own big screen TV at home.
But, make no mistake, the Big Board is jarring. It stands in stark contrast to everything around it. As a Louisville native, it's hard to accept the importance of a massive piece of technology in this place, because Churchill Downs seems to be frozen in time. It's a culture of its own, standing firmly in history even as the horse racing industry fades around it.
When the thoroughbreds take off from the starting gate, the camera zooms onto their hooves, and it's almost impossible to tear our eyes away from the Big Board. The images are crystal clear: the specks of dirt flying up from the track, the sweat on the majestic animals' necks, the determination in the jockeys' eyes. It's absolutely mesmerizing, and those same swells of pride come rushing back.
Why a board so big
The term 4K resolution refers to a display area with a width of 4,000 pixels. It's four times as clear as 1080p high definition television. It has 281 trillion displayable colors and 30 times the brightness of a standard high definition television. On the 90-foot wide screen at Churchill Downs, there are 9 million LED light bulbs and lines of resolution. Those 750 speakers Churchill installed around the track are meant to ensure the content can be heard from all angles and in virtually every part of the venue.
The name "Big Board" may sound too obvious, but there are really no other words. Coming in at 15,224 square feet, the massive television weighs 1.2 million pounds. It is 170 feet from the ground and stands on the far side the track, but the images are clearly visible from almost anywhere on the 147-acre grounds, with a 170 degree viewing angle.
Simply stating the new screen is highly visible would be a gross understatement. The board, which was debuted on opening night at Churchill Downs on Saturday, April 26 for night racing, grew continuously brighter as the night wore on. By the end of the last race at 11 p.m., looking at the screen was similar to checking your phone in the middle of the night — in that moment, it feels like your retinas are burning from the brightness. The screen is the equivalent of 320,000 iPhones, so just imagine starting at that.
When 33 year-old GM Jordan talks about the Big Board, it's obvious that he is serious about enhancing the fan experience. He's looking beyond just horse racing for ideas, drawing inspiration from other sports leagues. He wants to bring the Derby and the sport of horseracing into the next phase of technology, which is why he invested in a 4K screen and chose Panasonic as Churchill's partner in the project.
Panasonic specializes in developing stadium-size high-definition screens, including Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Safeco Field in Seattle, and Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The Texas Motor Speedway screen is even larger than the Churchill display, but the Texas version is only high definition and not ultra high definition (4K). With 4K, the Big Board is now the crown jewel.
The entire Big Board project at Churchill cost $12 million and took four months to build, though the plans for the technology have been in the works for about a year. Constructing the board wasn't without its challenges.
The construction team had to drill deep into bedrock (45 feet into the ground) to anchor the steel that holds the board so that it could handle up to 90 mph winds. The IT engineers had to run scads of new wires for all of the speakers as well as for the board itself. Graphics had to be specially designed for the 4K screen, information had to be layered, and the Downs had to buy a special 4K camera.
Then, there was the matter of how to display content on the 4K screen. You can't exactly hook up a Blu-ray player or a Roku box. It essentially needs its own content management system, or control system as Panasonic calls it. The control system that powers the Big Board is made by Vizrt, a Panasonic partner. The most important challenge, however, was coming up with lifestyle content to put on the Big Board during everyday races.
The executives at Churchill Downs knew that when people come to the Derby, they want to do it all. Everyone has their own perception of what the experience should be like, if they had all the time and access in the world. Like mud-sliding in the infield, drinking all the mint juleps they can carry, hanging out in the paddock, and spending time with horses on the backside.
Now, the Big Board can take them to all of these places from wherever they are sitting or standing at the race track. On Derby weekend, fans are going to see all of these aspects and more. Churchill Downs will produce original content for the big day, interviewing jockeys, breeders, and fans, as well as the celebrities on the red carpet. People can watch the mixology of bourbon drinks, see the trophy and garland of roses being prepared, and see how the big whigs are getting along in Millionaire's Row.
To produce all of this original content for the Big Board, Churchill has worked with Van Wagner Big Screen Networks, to produce original content for Derby weekend. Big Screen Networks has produced this kind of content for Super Bowls, Olympic Games, the World Series, the Ryder Cup, and teams in virtually all professional sports leagues.
"We are creating 13 hours of excitement, from when the gates open until the gates close," said Bob Becker, vice president of Big Screen Networks. "[We'll have people] walking around the track, a one-hour pregame show in the morning, how to make a mint julep, how to bet, horse racing 101, jockey profiles...We bundle that all together and it makes for a second-by-second produced show."
Social media integration is also a huge aspect of the content. Using the hashtag #kyderby, fans at the track or around the world at their own parties can be seen on the Big Board. Of course, Jordan clarified, it is moderated and sorted through before being displayed in ultra high def. This is the world's biggest party, after all.
"One of our goals was trying to create engaging content that would deliver messages to fans without putting stuff on the screen they might tune out, but using it to show things they otherwise wouldn't have seen," Jordan said.
Early in the evening on opening night, fans started to catch on to the hashtag, taking selfies and waiting for them to show up on screen.
"I saw you on the Big Board!" yelled one woman, running to catch up to her friend in a hot pink dress and stilettos. "I tweeted it!"
Changing the conversation
The Kentucky Derby brings together all walks of life for a celebration of spring, tradition, and a little taste of Southern culture. However, on normal days at Churchill, it's mostly long-time horse racing fans, heavy gamblers, and native Louisvillians. Throughout its history, the Downs has served as more of a casino than a sporting venue.
But at its heart, horse racing is a sport — and an exhilarating one at that. The Big Board is about bringing the sport and the spectacle of horse racing to the forefront.
Horse racing is unique in that a day at the track is mostly a day of waiting. The races themselves are usually one to two minutes, depending on the distance. The Kentucky Derby itself, for instance, is one and a quarter miles and takes a little over two minutes to finish (fun fact: the exception was Secretariat in 1973, who set the race's fastest time ever at 1:59:40).
"It's a sporting venue and live entertainment facility," said Jeff Koleba, director of marketing for Churchill Downs. "It's a party. We're operating so much differently than any other sport."
To retain the attention and attract new visitors, Churchill Downs has to fill in the gaps of time where no action is taking place. Those gaps leave lots of time for storytelling.
In most other sports, 90 percent of the show is the event itself, and 10 percent is filler. In horse racing, it's almost the exact opposite. Still, Churchill Downs took a page or two from the books of other sports leagues — the PGA's way of orienting the crowd's attention and the NBA's skills to hype up fans. But, in order to provide that kind of storytelling experience, it need something to unify everyone's attention. That's the ultimate reason why it needed to plant this technological monstrosity in the middle of its century-old stadium.
"It becomes a focal point... It really sets us up to tell a story... What we do here is a live story," Koleba said.
For Panasonic, Churchill Downs may have seemed like an unlikely place to unveil the largest 4K screen in the world. But, the fact that the sports action is so fast-paced and condensed leaves so much room for crafting dramatic content to fill the spaces in between makes it an interesting venue to show off the benefits of the technology.
Richard Ballard, vice president of sales for Panasonic, said "There's no better place to watch this than the Kentucky Derby."
Perhaps Hunter S. Thompson captured this spectacle best in when he famously called the Kentucky Derby "decadent and depraved" in 1970: "Nobody minds being stared at; that's what they're in there for. Some people spend most of their time in the Paddock; they can hunker down at one of the many wooden tables, lean back in a comfortable chair and watch the ever-changing odds flash up and down on the big tote board outside the window."
If only Thompson was around to see a new generation of decadence on the Big Board.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.