Kentucky Derby 2020: Epic virtual showdown adds a digital twist to race day

Due to the coronavirus, the 146th Run for the Roses has been postponed. In lieu of the traditional race, a virtual Kentucky Derby of sorts featuring all 13 Triple Crown winners will take center stage.

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In March, it was announced that the 146th Kentucky Derby had been rescheduled for Sept. 5, 2020 due to the coronavirus. This marked the first time the race had been delayed since the end of World War II. Nonetheless, Derby officials weren't letting the first Saturday in May go off without an iconic race in some form or fashion. In lieu of the traditional Run for the Roses, Churchill Downs has partnered with gaming provider Inspired Entertainment to create a virtual Kentucky Derby of sorts just for the occasion.

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The competition is formally called The Kentucky Derby: Triple Crown Showdown, and, as its name would suggest, the computer-simulated horse race will feature all 13 Triple Crown winners. This exclusive club is known only to a baker's dozen of racehorses that have sprinted to victory in the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes, and the Preakness Stakes. Saturday's showdown spans a century of horse racing lore ranging from the first to accomplish the feat in 1919, Sir Barton, to the most recent honoree Justify, who joined the club in 2018.

As is the case with any sport bridging multiple generations, there will always be staunch disagreement about which champion stands a cut above the rest. That said, fierce debate about which horse would win such a race has echoed through stables, trackside parlors, and box suites for decades. On Wednesday, it was announced that Secretariat was the early favorite to win the race. This came as little surprise to horse racing fans, as the 1973 Derby winner and Triple Crown champion is considered by many to be the best thoroughbred in US racing history. Citation was not too far behind with 4-1 odds favoring the 1948 Derby winner.

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Above, 1973 Derby winner and Triple Crown champion Secretariat.

Image: Churchill Downs Racetrack

Churchill Downs representatives contacted Inspired Entertainment about a potential partnership after seeing a virtual horse race the company created for prime time television in the United Kingdom. The Virtual Grand National race aired on April 4 drawing millions of viewers. Steve Rogers, CCO of Virtual Sports for Inspired Entertainment, said Churchill Downs officials were intrigued about creating a similar virtual experience. With only a matter of weeks to put this project together, creating an authentic aesthetic came with its own set of unique digital hurdles and logistical challenges.

"We had a very short period in which to create the racecourse and build the identifiable features of the track in CGI," Rogers said. "Normally with these projects we would film the track with drone cameras in order to have a base from which to work, but the COVID-19 pandemic meant we could not travel, so we needed to build the complete environment in CGI."

On Saturday, we will finally have a chance to behold a proper virtual meeting of the best thoroughbreds of all time. How exactly did the team determine which horse will be crowned champion of champions once and for all? The short answer: A laundry list of historical data.

"We calculated probabilities for each of the 13 horses to win the race based on all of the available data points: Their past form, their performance under certain weather conditions, their opponents, and so on, in order to create theoretical probabilities," Rogers said.

Of course, there will always be intangibles with a horse race of this magnitude. The algorithm is set, the probability has been determined, but all bets are off once the starting gate bell tolls Saturday evening. 

"We feed that information into our virtual sports platform and generate a random number that we map against the probability range, meaning that while the result is random, it is more likely that the horse with the highest probability will win the race and least likely that the horse with the lowest probability will win the race. But as with any random draw, and with the magic of the Kentucky Derby, any horse could win this race," Rogers said.

It's no secret that even a digital race of such epic proportions could never match the magic and electricity of the real Derby deal. As can be readily seen by the annual pilgrimage that is the millions descending onto Louisville, Ky., for one weekend, and the fastest two minutes in sports, there's nothing quite like the Derby. Regardless, the creators of this fine virtual affair hope that the event will offer a break from our rather harsh current reality.

"We hope this race will provide some light entertainment during a period when people have not been able to access much live sport, and many haven't been able to see friends and family," Rogers said. 

Event information, schedule, and online resources

The NBC race day coverage will air from 3 to 6 p.m. (EST) featuring an interactive virtual Kentucky Derby party designed to bring the standard race day experience to your living room. This includes how-to tutorials for making fascinators, traditional Derby Day recipes, cocktail instructions, and more. The televised event will culminate with the virtual Triple Crown Showdown at 5:45 pm. To prepare for the race, Kentucky Derby has released an online guide allowing individuals to peruse the full catalog of Triple Crown winners, including key facts and pedigree information.

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Wagering on Derby Day will be a bit different this year. Currently, the Churchill Downs Foundation has a portal allowing individuals to make a contribution and enter for a chance to win the Ultimate Kentucky Derby Experience. Contributions will benefit the Team Kentucky Fund and Direct Relief to support coronavirus-related initiatives. The Churchill Downs Foundation will match these donations up to $1 million. A percentage of contributions have been designated for the R.E.I.N. Fund (Relief for Equine Industry Needs).

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