Back when I first started going to the track, photo finish pictures were often posted in a shadow box for all to examine. After one close race, a four horse finish, I went over to check the photo. They had actually posted two photos, both exactly the same but one with the line in front of the winner’s nose and one with the line showing the show finisher.
A man standing next to me starting complaining that they had used the same photo to determine the win and the show. It took me a second to realize he assumed someone had snapped a picture at the moment the first horse hit the finish line, with his complaint being the third place horse hadn’t yet hit the finish line. Of course, the fact was that the nose of the third place horse was also on the finish line. It seems a bit counterintutive, but once you get a proper explanation, it makes total sense.
I asked a few other people if they understood how the photo finish system worked, and more than a few of them understood it like the guy at the photo box. Somebody was snapping pictures at the right moment.
That was 40 years ago, long before everyone had a pocket phone with a digital camera. When people saw a picture they assumed someone had snapped it with a camera.
Photo-finish cameras were developed during the 1940s and 1950s as a way of reducing cheating in horse racing. Typically photo-finish cameras use strip photography, in which a camera is aimed at the finish line from an elevated position in a tower. It captures only the sequence of events on that line in the vertical dimension. Every part of each racer’s body is shown as it appeared the moment it crossed the line; anything stationary is represented as a horizontal streak. The horizontal position represents time, and time markings along the bottom of the photo can be used to find the exact crossing time of any racer. The high angle allows judges to see the position of every horse in relation to the others.
In other words, when you see the photo finish “picture” the entire horse, including the nose is on the finish line. What the fellow at the shadow box saw was a portion of the film strip in which the first four horses had crossed the wire, with each respective horse’s nose on the wire.
Technology is improving. Some tracks are going to digital systems – Arlington Park comes to mind – but regardless of which system they use, there is agreement that the photo finish camera is accurate. Curtis Linnell, executive vice president of wagering analysis and operations for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau said,
“That is something controlled, and controlled very closely, expertly; by vendors and regulatory associations. (The TRPB) has not seen one instance—not one instance—in which there has been evidence a fraudulent photo finish has been perpetrated.”
A few days ago jockey Kent Desormeaux let the racing world know what he thought of the photo finish system.
“I don’t believe in the validity of the photo finish system, not at all as a matter of fact. I know I’ve been deprived of wins—or the other way around—but I’m pretty certain that we, and you as the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, need to find a better way to make sure that photo finish was accurate.”
He went on to say,
“I believe they can make the wire where they want. When we’re going 40 miles per hour, you can change the finish by a centimeter and show that the horse’s nose is on the line or isn’t on the line. I’ve seen some races this year, on Breeders’ Cup day, that I don’t think was the true winner. I want horse racing officials to make me believe that the photo finish was real. I don’t believe them. I’ve been in 30,000 races, I get to the wire and raise my stick then get embarrassed and pulled in and told, ‘Well, you didn’t win.’ Been there, done that.”
It was news because Desormeaux is still a well known jockey, but this incident sounds like a good reason for racing to have a Roger Goodell-like commissioner, a guy who can suspend you for using flat footballs.
What was Desormeaux thinking? Does he even understand how the photo finish system works? Racing has enough credibility issues without throwing doubt on something that has been seen as pretty close to foolproof, not just by horse racing, but by a number of other sports.
It was especially egregious for Desormeaux to suggest that even the Breeder’s Cup is not immune from finish line shenanigans. Seriously? Desormeaux wants us to believe that incompetent technology reaches as far as racing’s biggest day?
Desormeaux’s statements were at the least irresponsible, and it is a shame he’s not subject to any sanction for popping off without any proof except his speculation that there were races he was sure he won before the photo finish revealed otherwise. Having someone of Desormeaux’s stature suggest that even the technology being used to ensure horseplayers are getting a fair shake can be manipulated is one more reason racing is seen by even it’s regular players in a negative light.
I don’t know what Desormeaux was hoping to accomplish, but I know what he did accomplish. He threw his sport, the sport that has allowed him to make a very good living, under the bus. He might as well have said, the people who run racing are cheats, that they don’t care about giving horseplayers an even break.
One more distraction. One more reason horse racing is losing players. One more reason to shake your head and wonder how much longer we’ll have to put up wth this absurdity.