How It Works: A Look At The Way Judges Call A Photo Finish - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

How It Works: A Look At The Way Judges Call A Photo Finish

Photo finish: a dead heat between Colonial Liam (gray) and Domestic Spending in the G1 Turf Classic

There's nothing quite as exciting as a back-and-forth battle down the stretch, but when it comes down to a close finish right at the wire, how is it that we find out which horse gets to head to the winner's circle?

Most race fans have seen the image resulting from a photo finish. The process of creating that image is not as well known, however, which can lead to confusion about its veracity.

Rather than a still shot of the entire field, the photo finish image is actually a compilation of multiple narrow images taken precisely at the finish line. The completed photo finish image shows the location of each horse in the field as it crosses that finish line.

Moving objects, such as racehorses traveling at upwards of 40 miles per hour, thus appear to be stationary. Conversely, a stationary object would appear in the photo finish stretching across the entire image.

Up in the judges' stand, the photo finish cameras are never moved, explained Lone Star Park placing judge Kimber Murray. Each course (dirt or turf) has its own camera, which is attached to the grandstand at a fixed location directly parallel to a narrow mirror on the inside rail. That mirror allows a “reverse image” of the finish line to appear on the photo finish image, to help placing judges determine placings in those instances in which horses on the outside may block their side-on view.

The highest-rated cameras take photos at a rate up to 2,000 frames per second and are accurate within 1/1000th of a second, according to the website of FinishLynx, the photo finish system in place at all three venues that host the American Triple Crown. The same system is in use at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, as well as the Dubai Racing Club.

“The technology is amazing,” said Murray. “That part I don't have anxiety about, because it's so precise and clear and easy. Even if there's a dead heat, you can blow it up really big and see the individual hairs on the horses' chins.”

There is, however, a human element to the photo finish system. The computer program does not pick out the winner; instead, the placing judges are able to shift a vertical line across the image to determine which horse's nose is in front. 

To the casual fan, that shift could appear to be the judges “moving” the finish line. Remember, though, since the photo finish image is actually a single point on the track over multiple moments in time, the judges' vertical line is truly measuring the difference between finishers at the finish line.

The line the judges use isn't a determination of the location of the finish; the composite photo is the exact point of the finish line. The line is used to distinguish the horses' noses, and thus the order of finish.

Once the photo finish image has loaded, Murray explained, she and the other placing judges (between one to three individuals, depending on the racetrack) go through the field to determine the precise order of finish. They do this at least three times to prevent errors, and key the results into the system.

In the case of tight finishes, or uncertain results, one or more stewards may be brought in to also examine the photograph.

“It is very precise, pretty black and white and easy unless you have a horse really buried in there,” Murray said. “Once we identify each horse, the computer will tell you the margins between the finishers; that's calibrated for a certain measurement.”

Most tracks also have a “backup” or “auxiliary” camera, which can be shifted from one position to another and serves as a secondary device if the primary fails. 

In Thoroughbred racing, only the finish line is filmed by photo finish cameras. In harness racing, however, every point of call is filmed and charted accordingly.

Of course, issues with the photo finish system have still been known to occur.

“There have been cases with a rusted over or misaligned mirror, and there was an incident at Saratoga a couple years ago with the lighting,” explained Pat Cummings, executive director of the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, and a former executive with the Hong Kong Jockey Club and racing technology and data provider Trakus. “I think there's a tremendous lack of published photos, and of transparency around these things. 

“It's difficult to say what's going on, because there's no transparency. We should be taking every step possible to ensure the confidence of our customers. That would include publishing every photo, putting it out there for the public to see.”

One photo finish tech, who spoke with the Paulick Report anonymously, identified the width of the lines used by the judges as another issue. On his screen, a yellow line is placed on the horses' noses to determine the placings. When the image is transferred to the television operators, that same yellow line is in place. When it is later published online, however, a slightly narrower silver line appears in its place. 

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The width of that line could mean the difference between a dead heat and distinguishing the placings, especially with the modern digital capability of the zoom function. The tech suggested that fixing these issues would be fairly simple: a standard level of zoom should be applied when examining photos, as well as a standard-width line.

“I witnessed it in Hong Kong; there were several times where the media asked us, can you really give us an extra look, print the still images from the judge,” explained Cummings. “We would then provide that image to the media so they could inspect it before the final product is put on the website.

“I think that if the degree of technology that we're using in America was up to the international standards, you would see a lot more of it.”

Cummings suggested looking to the examples set by other racing jurisdictions as a way to improve the technology in use on the track.

“With what has been an essential monopoly of online wagering in the modern era, the horse racing industry has contracted,” he said. “Over the last two decades, adjusted for inflation, American wagering is down 50 percent.

“In the last 10-15 years, modern consumers of sport, ergo wagering, have become more and more attuned to oversight. Replay has gotten better, delivery of imagery has gotten better; many professional sports leagues are finding ways to up their game. Whether it's improving rules, improving replay access, keeping tabs on the officiating, more involvement of legal offices and transparency on tough calls/mistakes, all those things are kind of part and parcel of the modern infrastructure required to compete with these other sporting events.”

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