EQUIBASE: RACING’S TOLL BOOTH

by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am
By Ray Paulick
It's not that much of a stretch to say that Equibase is one of the Thoroughbred industry's biggest success stories of the last 20 years. It can also be said that it's one of the industry's biggest disappointments.

Created in 1990 to end the century-old monopoly Daily Racing Form held on the acquisition and ownership of North American racing data, Equibase is a joint venture of the Jockey Club and the member tracks of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America. For most of its existence, the Racing Form was owned by Walter Annenberg's Triangle Publications (other products in Triangle included the Philadelphia Inquirer  newspaper, Seventeen magazine, and TV Guide, which at one time had 20 million weekly readers, the biggest circulation of any American publication; suffice to say Triangle was an extremely lucrative business).

Annenberg and his key lieutenants at the Racing Form, publisher Mike Sandler and editor Fred Grossman, had a cozy relationship with the racing industry. Racetracks were doing well in the 1970s and 1980s and so was the Form. Prices for racing's only daily newspaper went up regularly (always preceded by a page two news brief about the rising cost of newsprint), but if horseplayers and fans complained, there was really no option for them; attempts by other publishers to collect data and compete with the Form were quickly squashed, with help in many cases from the racetracks, who didn't want to upset the applecart.

But in a surprise move in 1988, Annenberg sold Triangle Publications to Australian publisher Rupert Murdoch for $3.2 billion. The transaction made more than a few people in the racing industry nervous. For the first time, they felt threatened that the new owner of the Racing Form might not be quite as benevolent as Walter Annenberg and his father had been. In order for Murdoch and Co. to squeeze profits out of this significant investment, there was the fear that these new owners might hold the industry hostage using the historical and contemporary racing data it acquired as part of the purchase.

Not long thereafter, a plan was hatched for the “industry” to begin collecting its own racing data, and Equibase was formed. There were great pronouncements about how Equibase would be used to serve the racing public, making a day of racing more enjoyable, and help address the sport's need to expand its fan base.

A new publication, the Racing Times, launched in 1991 (and folded one year later), became Equibase's first customer, and before long most racetracks began using Equibase racing data in past performances published in track programs. They were, in fact, competing with the Racing Form  with their products.

Then and now, Equibase received a fee for every program sold. That has been one of Equibase's biggest successes: collecting fees at its information toll gate.

Eventually, even the Daily Racing Form (which changed hands several more times after Murdoch's 1988 purchase) became a customer of Equibase, shutting down its own track and field operations that had set the standard for charting American races.

The means by which the data was collected always seemed a bit crude to me. Whether it was the Daily Racing Form crew or Equibase's employees, the method was the same: someone with a pair of binoculars perched in the press box watches a race and calls out (to another person or sometimes into a tape recorder) the running positions of each horse, including estimated margins, at specific points in a race. As you can imagine, it can often take some time to work through a field of a dozen horses, and by the time the chart caller gets through the field, some horses may have changed positions. The only truly accurate call of a race is a horse's finishing position, which is taken from the photo finish camera.

In short, charting races is a very inexact science, and it can lead to some very misleading charts and past performances that horseplayers, fans and horse owners believe to be gospel. As a former Racing Form employee, I would often see charts of races where a horse was said to be 15 lengths behind the leader with a quarter of a mile to run, and then went on to win. Using the formula of one length equaling approximately one-fifth of a second, that horse, on paper at least, theoretically might run his final quarter mile in less than 22 seconds, a virtual impossibility.

I trust that Equibase's standards have improved over the years, but the bottom line is the charts and each horse's position in a race at different “points of call” is little more than an estimate made by the chart caller.

Equibase has been promising for almost 20 years now that it is working toward an automated chart collection process. Early in 1991, I felt like an acquaintance of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk when I went out to the Kentucky Horse Park to watch a demonstration of an early chart-collecting system. An Equibase executive cobbled together a microchip processor, some wires, a slow-moving horse and an old Telex machine to show that data could indeed be collected automatically. Of course, getting racetracks to mimic the project with antennas and wires stretched around the racetrack was another thing.

Since then, we've seen sports like NASCAR lead the way in global satellite positioning. Trakus, a private company that is not part of the Jockey Club “family of companies,” is the leader in this technology for horse racing. Trakus technology has been in place at Woodbine racecourse in Canada since 2006. Del Mar and Keeneland also use Trakus to give fans a video game-like view of a race. The technology can also be used to automatically chart races and give horseplayers very specific information, such as how far a horse may have traveled during a race (based on how wide a trip he had), and when he demonstrated his fastest and slowest speeds. For some reason, the Jockey Club has not yet embraced this technology.

In between the humorous demo in 1991 and the Trakus installations in 2006, Jockey Club president Alan Marzelli (who is also chairman of Equibase) has promised automated charting of races in the “not too distant future.” In 2002, speaking at the Jockey Club's annual Round Table, Marzelli said Equibase might be on the verge of revolutionizing how racing information is collected. “We are in the early stages of testing this technology,” Marzelli said, “so we don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. But we think that we may be close to finding an answer. If so, this new technology will not only provide entirely new ways for handicappers to analyze races, but it will also provide broadcast enhancements and new media applications that will help make televised racing more compelling and open up additional distribution channels for the sport. This is not a fantasy. Other major sports – football, baseball, and NASCAR being three prominent examples – are already enhancing their broadcasts using this technology, and the information generated by it today. At its board meeting earlier this week, the Equibase Management Committee heard about the success of our initial tests conducted at Keeneland in July, and authorized management to conduct further testing later this fall. So stay tuned for further news regarding this exciting initiative later this year.”

Seven years later, the industry is still waiting for that update.

In the meantime, Equibase has been a very successful toll booth, charging horseplayers, fans and horsemen for things that other sports routinely give away at no cost. (I suspect it is a very profitable company, though Equibase's financials are not made public.)

Granted, horse racing is a very statistically-oriented activity, and the collection of the data costs money. But golf, baseball and football (anyone ever heard of fantasy leagues?), among other sports, are also statistically heavy, and those activities manage to collect and disseminate their data without gouging its fan and customer base.

A baseball fan can go to MLB.com and check out box scores of all Major League Baseball games, not just this week, or this month, but last month or last year, or the year before that. There is no charge to go back and relive those games or to see what happened.

If a racing fan wants to go back more than a few days and see the charts of Rachel Alexandra's (or any other horses) races, they have to pay for that privilege. Equibase's toll booth is pervasive.

And that's just the beginning of what Equibase charges for. Over the last 20 years, it has become the new monopoly, replacing the Daily Racing Form in that role. But is it as benevolent as the Form once was?

Tomorrow, we'll take a further look at how other sports provide information to their fans at no cost, and compare that to horse racing's official data company, Equibase.

Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report

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