Close Call: Distorted Online Photo Raised Questions About Del Mar Dead Heat

by | 08.25.2016 | 3:36am
On the left, is a blow-up image from Del Mar's website, showing a sliver of space between the nose of Navy Hymn (top) and the line used to determine finish order. The blown-up image on the right is what stewards and placing judges viewed.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Don't believe everything you see on the Internet.”

Honest Abe may have been right – even though I haven't actually read that warning from him anywhere but on the Internet.

Take, for example, photo finishes posted on the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club website. More specifically, look at the photo finish of Sunday's eighth race, when three placing judges and three stewards looking at digital images of the photo finish were unable to separate Well Measured and Navy Hymn and called the race a dead heat.

Mike Wellman, co-owner of Well Measured, looked at the photo finish posted Sunday night on the Del Mar website. He and several others who examined the image saw a sliver of daylight between the nose of Navy Hymn and the vertical line used by the photo finish camera operator to determine which horse is in front. Well Measured's nose appeared to be on the line.

Wellman contacted Mike Marten, the California Horse Racing Board's communications officer, and asked if the stewards could take him through the procedure of how photo finishes are examined and what the protocol is for calling a dead heat.

On Wednesday, stewards Scott Chaney, Grant Baker and Kim Sawyer explained to Wellman and several others – including this writer – what those procedures are.

During the course of the explanation it was revealed that the image the stewards examined was slightly different than what was posted on the in-house television signal and the track's website – not through any intended manipulation but by a subtle distortion when transferred from the photo finish camera to the television department and then to the website. On the website photo, the horses appear to be slightly stretched horizontally

Chaney, who was not in the stewards' booth for Sunday's races (safety steward Luis Jauregui substituted), said when he first heard about the issue he went to the Del Mar website and looked at the same image Wellman had seen. “I see a space (between Navy Hymn's nose and the vertical line),” said Chaney, adding that he shared Wellman's concerns about whether a dead heat may have been the wrong call.

However, the image the placing judges and stewards examined for six minutes on Sunday before a dead heat was unanimously called appeared to have no space between Navy Hymn's nose and the line. The image they were looking at was directly from the Plusmic USA photo finish camera software used at Del Mar.

“This took as long as any photo I've been involved with,” said Baker. “At the end of the day, I couldn't separate them.”

The stewards showed a printout of the image they viewed on a monitor during deliberations and took Wellman, Well Measured's trainer, Peter Miller, and others through the procedure, using the photo finish camera software. To this writer, no space could be seen between Navy Hymn's nose and the vertical line.

Wellman, who co-owns Well Measured with his wife Cory, Wachtel Stable and Gary Barber, said he would not file an appeal over the decision. He did say he feels the procedures could be better, suggesting that the vertical line used on the photo finish camera software could be thinner or translucent. That would remove any doubt about whether the line was covering up a portion of the horses' noses.

Officials said the procedures for posting the photo finishes on the website may be changed. Instead of transferring the images from the television department after each photo finish is shown on television monitors, all photo finishes from a day's races would be burned onto a DVD from the photo finish camera and then posted on the website at the conclusion of the day's program.

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