Tech Gives Kentucky Derby Faster Run for the Roses

Kentucky Derby
by Shawn Krest
, Movable Media

Real-time technologies bring a data-based approach to horse breeding and training, and the way race fans place winning bets at the Kentucky Derby.

Breeding a Kentucky Derby winner is a multi-million dollar business, and increasingly technology is playing a more critical role in horse racing success.

It’s no secret top horses such as 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh earn $600,000 a day in stud fees from aspiring horse owners eager to breed a future champion. But new digital devices are becoming secret weapons to reaching riches.

With so much money at stake, horse breeders are turning to data analysis and technologies that help influence or control the process, including the timing of a foal’s birth.

The Kentucky Derby is limited to three-year-old horses, but an “old three” may have an advantage. Based on official rules, all thoroughbred horses in the Northern Hemisphere have the same birthday. Regardless of their actual birth date, all race horses turn one year old on Jan. 1 of the year following their birth. Horses born earlier in the year have more time to grow and develop, compared to horses who were born later in the year.

The problem for thoroughbred breeders is that the natural breeding season for horses happens in the spring and summer. However, owners want foals to be born as close to Jan. 1 as possible to give them an advantage in size and maturity.

That’s where Equilume comes in. The Equilume Light Mask shines a blue light into a horse’s eye, which simulates that the days are getting longer, and it’s almost the season for mating. Longer days slow down a horse’s production of melatonin, signaling that it’s time to breed.

Kentucky Derby
The Equilume Light Mask simulates longer days of sunlight, encouraging horses to breed earlier in the season. Image courtesy of Equilume.

Continuing the light therapy during the equine pregnancy has also been shown to increase the birth weight of the foal and prevent late delivery, according to Equilume.

The mask is lightweight with a built-in automatic timer. Equilume inventor Dr. Barbara Murphy evolved the product to make sure battery life lasts through the breeding season. She also made sure the mask is tough enough to withstand bumping into fences, rolling on the ground or other horseplay.

Dr. Murphy said the wearable tech is easier on the horse than previous methods of light therapy, which generally involved moving the horse inside under artificial lighting to simulate longer days of sunlight.

“It allows horses be horses and live outdoors,” Murphy said. “That makes them happier and healthier.”

Tracking Performance

It seems like every sport from golf to basketball to cycling has found a way to make use of wearable tech. It was just a matter of time before the trend hit horse racing. Now the wearable tech trend is spreading quickly across one of the oldest sports.

Former jockey Andrew Stuart, who rode 55 winning horses in his 420-race career, developed E-Trakka, a saddle blanket with in-built GPS and heart-rate monitor for recording a horse’s fitness level.

The E-Trakka monitors a horse’s speed, position, length of stride and heart rate during a workout. Using easy-to-read charts, trainers can compare a horse’s performance to past workouts, getting an early indication of an injury or illness.

Stuart also offers a service called 20/20 Racehorse Training, which uses the E-Trakka data collected from more than 30,000 workouts to get an idea of how a horse measures up to other racers. As Stuart explains it, there are certain factors a competitive racehorse needs to be born with while others can be developed in training.

The E-Trakka data can find a diamond-in-the-rough — a horse that has the potential to be great. It also identifies horses with a limit on their potential based on bad genetic luck, allowing trainers to focus their efforts elsewhere.

“If a horse has a high peak speed but poor recovery, then they were born with the gift to run but were not born with a good cardiovascular system,” Stuart explained. “Other horses have good recovery but don’t have the speed. When you get both, you have an elite athlete.”

In addition to helping trainers make more efficient use of their time and effort, he said there’s a safety feature to using the data.

“It reduces the number of sick or injured horses in a race and also ensures a horse is running a suitable class and distance for its conditioning level,” said Stuart.

Shaking Things Up

Rest and recovery are just as important to a racehorse as a workout, and some trainers have borrowed technology from the space program to help keep their horses ready to run.

When astronauts spend long periods of time in zero gravity, researchers found that they suffered loss of muscle mass and bone strength. Since astronauts don’t have to battle the pull of gravity, NASA had to find another way to keep their bodies functioning well.

Scientists found that vibrating platforms helped reduce the effects of zero gravity, keeping astronauts’ bones and muscles as strong as they would be on Earth.

The sport of horse racing has adopted the same technology, and several companies, including EquiVibe and Vitafloor, offer vibrating plates for horses to stand on in their stalls. Nyquist, the winner of last year’s Kentucky Derby, spends at least 15 minutes a day standing on the platform.

The therapy promises a wide variety of benefits, including increased bone density and improved agility. Nyquist’s trainers believe that the treatment helps with circulation and even digestion.

Placing a Sure Bet

While much of the industry’s technological efforts are aimed at the horses, fans also can benefit from new developments. Churchill Downs has created an app, allowing fans to order food and place bets without leaving their seats. Tech is even improving Kentucky’s famous mint julep.

But which horse should people bet on? Gambling is a multibillion-dollar industry. The Kentucky Derby is one of the biggest betting events of the year, including the Super Bowl and March Madness.

One of the same technologies used to help pick a March Madness bracket can also help on Derby Day. UNU artificial intelligence (AI) uses Swarm technology to help predict everything from Grammy winners to NCAA Tournament games to the Kentucky Derby Superfecta.

UNU’s Swarm uses the wisdom of crowds to make decisions. A question is posed, such as “Who will win the Derby?” to a large group of online users, who have 60 seconds to answer. An algorithm then uses the group’s varied opinions to find a compromise answer, which studies and trials have shown can be uncannily accurate.

Last year UNU founder Louis Rosenberg put Swarm to the test at the Kentucky Derby by predicting a Superfecta, or the top four finishers in the race in the correct order. At 540-1 odds, Rosenberg won a $10,842 payoff from a $20 bet.

From the breeding process to choosing the best competitors for the race to training and care, technology is helping to improve the safety and performance of horses competing in the Kentucky Derby.

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