EMHF - Might technological advance lead to greater international co-operation in racing?

  MIGHT TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCE LEAD TO GREATER INTERNATIONAL CO-OPERATION IN RACING?    Impressions from Korea and the Asian Racing Conference       The Asian Racing Conference (ARC) was first staged 58 years ago and attracted less than 70 delegates. These days, it is held biennially, and the 37th ARC returned to Seoul this year – the third time it has been Korean-hosted.     The Racing    Prior to the conference, delegates had the chance to attend Korean Derby Day at Seoul Racecourse Park. Prize money for the 11-race card averaged over €100,000 per race, with the Derby itself – won by 2/1 favourite Ecton Blade, a son of imported Kentucky-bred stallion Ecton Park – worth €640,000.     The grandstands at Seoul are enormous structures, stretching far along the finishing straight and reminiscent of those at Tokyo racecourse. For many of the 80,000 racegoers who can be accommodated, there is the option of an individually numbered seat, not with any vantage point affording a view of the track, but rather deep in the bowels of one or another of five identical and cavernous floors. Each of these floors was packed this Derby Day with studious race fans, mostly deeply absorbed in their form guides, checking betting monitors, and scribbling notes, doubtless plotting betting combinations of fiendish complexity. The bias towards exotic bets is extreme in Korea, with just one percent of the handle directed at win bets.     By the time of each race, the crowds migrated to the viewing areas of the stands, looking out at the biggest big-screen in the racing world – which, despite its 150m width, is every bit as picture-crisp as one would expect from Korean technology.     Racing is an immensely popular spectator sport in the country. Annual attendances of 15 million from a population of just 50 million put European countries to shame. (For example, in Britain, where racing is the second most popular spectator sport, the 65 million population only make 6 million racecourse visits, and even on the island of Ireland, the ratio is not as impressive as in Korea: 1.3 million turnstile clicks from a population of 6.6 million). One might imagine that this results from a monopoly that racing enjoys when it comes to the gambling options available to Korean citizens. To some extent, this is true: there is but one casino in the whole of the country which Koreans may enter, and there is no domestic online betting offering. But betting – albeit to limited stakes – is allowed on a variety of other sports, a curious selection, including cycling and ssirum (Korea’s answer to sumo wrestling). And illegal online betting is widespread.     So the numbers can be seen as a great advertisement for the sport. And the crowds were fully engaged in the day’s activities: noisy and every bit as animated as one would find at Ascot or Flemington. But there is one striking feature of the scene at Seoul racecourse that sets it apart from virtually every other, outside the Middle East. It slowly dawns on one that these tens of thousands of committed racegoers are enjoying their long day’s racing…..with not an alcoholic outlet in sight! Proof that racing can thrive without an alcoholic crutch: further evidence of just how our sport, in all its diversity around the world, maintains its ability to surprise us and challenge our stereotypes.    PHOTO:       It would be good if you could source a picture of Seoul racecourse similar to either of these:          The Conference    Those whose business is horseracing descended on Korea from Asia, Europe, and beyond. While the total of 600 or so delegates was some way short of the record numbers attracted to Hong Kong four years ago (tensions in Korea were particularly high at the time people were asked to commit to paying their USD $1,300 attendance fees, which could not have helped), to my mind, this ARC scaled new heights, in terms of the interest and relevance of the topics covered and the professionalism of the presenters.     Sweeping a bright but focussed spotlight across a broad range of issues of real moment to our sport worldwide, it illuminated such things as the frightening increase in illegal betting, the (to many) puzzling speed of growth of eSports, and the growing menace of gene doping.    The standout ‘takeaway’ from the conference for me was a talk on broadcasting technology trends by Hong Kong Jockey Club senior consultant Oonagh Chan.  While this fell within a session entitled “Reaching and Expanding Racing’s Fan Base” and focussed on technology advances in areas such as picture resolution and clarity, and how 360° video might attract new followers of horseracing, I was left pondering how dramatically they might also have an impact on stewards’ rooms around the world.    We were shown a race from Woodbine Racetrack in Canada, where a small video camera, which captured 360° video throughout the race, had been mounted on the helmet of one of the jockeys. Through complementary technology, anyone armed with a mobile device was then able to live that jockey’s experience of the race – choosing the angle of view as the race proceeded, for example, scanning round to see the horses to the immediate left or right, or the chasing pack. Just the sort of immersive experience that has long been standard fare for the computer gamer.     What was most impressive was the stability of the pictures, which has improved vastly over the past few years. The effect is no longer the seasickness-inducing rises and falls that we have become used to from television build-ups to a big race that utilises a ‘jockey-cam.’    One can only expect the size and weight of the cameras to reduce still further, and with the picture resolution – and therefore the clarity of the images – already excellent, it will only get better still as we advance from high-definition to 4K and, soon, to 8K standards. Also, a reduction in the length of time it takes after the race before the immersive video experience is available – currently around 10 minutes onto the YouTube platform.    So, yes, wonderful for the race fans with their mobile phones, and this may well help open up a new area of the market. But surely, it is also only a matter of time before one racing authority or another picks this technology up and utilises it for regulatory purposes. With the wearing of these cameras made mandatory for all riders, stewards could make extensive use of the images, calling for the view from aboard whichever horses they wished, rotating the camera this way and that, and using these pictures to determine, with greater certainty than from the existing remote camera angles available, whether indeed there was a sufficient gap for the rider to go for, etc., etc.    Chan went on to describe advances in remote TV production capabilities, enabling ‘outside broadcasts light’ – ie, with the need only for the cameras themselves, with the job previously conducted from an onsite, outside broadcast van now being perfectly feasibly handled remotely, bringing consequent savings in TV production control rooms and TV production teams. Again, while her message centred on how these will affect the way in which live racing coverage is produced, they could equally bring about a further revolution in stewarding that could have internationalisation ramifications.    [PHOTO:       Here it would be good, perhaps, if you could find a photo of a Stewards’ enquiry, either from the present day, or a historical shot, with a caption:    The stewards’ enquiry may soon look very different]    The idea of a ‘bunker,’ or remote control centre from which to hold stewards’ enquiries, is not a new one, of course, but it surely cannot now be long until it is a reality, as it already is in US basketball.     And, once established, I believe it has the potential to introduce an internationalism in horserace regulation which would be entirely new. A forward thinking racing authority establishing a central stewarding centre could offer to handle the stewarding function for others. For impecunious racing nations, this could be at a fraction of the cost of employing, training, and deploying their own team of stewards.    Outsourcing stewarding would promise further benefits over and above this, such as an improvement in the consistency of decision-making across countries, for a start. And secondly, it would offer an escape from accusations of conflicts of interest that can bedevil particularly the smaller racing administrations. In countries where the number of people sufficiently well versed and involved in the sport is limited, the task of ensuring an absence of conflicts of interest is a perennial issue. Finding stewards with the necessary expertise but with no connection at all to the participating horses can be difficult, and, however genuinely addressed, the perception of bias in the minds of trainers, owners, and punters will always linger. By passing over the role of policeman to an objective third party, racing authorities could liberate themselves from this problem in a way which would, I believe, draw support from stakeholders and spectators alike.     National pride has always provided a powerful impediment to international cooperation in racing. Such cooperation as it exists is, it must be said, rudimentary. Despite the fact that in Europe we have many countries with small-scale racing set-ups, often centred on a single racecourse, each racing authority currently bears the full cost of providing its own, discrete administrative machinery.     But maybe this stewarding example, born of a coalescence of technology advance with economic and administrative benefits, will break the mould. The cost-efficiency and harmonisation advantages of cross-border cooperation need not stop there. Handicapping could also be handled centrally. And why could we not also have peripatetic starters, medical officers, and veterinary officers whose ‘patch’ would include neighbouring countries? Might we be on the verge of a breakthrough in international cooperation?       ATHENS GENERAL ASSEMBLY       It is a policy of the European and Mediterranean Horseracing Federation that we hold our meetings in as many different member countries as possible. In this way, we all gain a better understanding of racing across our region, and countries can have an opportunity to showcase their racing. Thus it was that, following Annual General Assembly Meetings in Madrid, Morocco, St Moritz, Ireland and Stockholm, we congregated in Athens for this year’s event. The Acropolis provided a spectacular backdrop and we matched our record attendance of twenty member countries.      [PICTURE OF FULL GATHERING:    Caption:    The EMHF General Assembly at the Ionic Centre, Athens.]    EMHF chairman Brian Kavanagh welcomed the turnout as testimony to the relevance of the EMHF to its members. “The Federation is a very good way for racing authorities to exchange views and best practice and to learn from each other,” he said. “Now eight years old, it continues to promote horseracing in the region.”    [PICTURE OF BRIAN KAVANAGH    Caption:    Brian Kavanagh, EMHF Chairman]    All 20 countries confirmed that they had either already introduced the new world standard for the treatment of interference cases – which was adopted by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (the EMHF’s parent body) in October 2017 – or would do so by the end of the year. This will see a harmonised interference rule across the European and Mediterranean region and follows the staging of two EMHF seminars on the subject earlier in the year.    Delegates heard presentations from Danish Jockey Club CEO Peter Knudsen on recent changes to the betting laws in his country, from me on lessons to be drawn from European Commission decisions on the statutory funding of horseracing, and on the WhipChip from its inventors Ferhat and Erin Tigrel.    We also welcomed the Lithuanian Horse Racing Association as the new member organisation for that country. The LHRA was appointed last year by the Lithuanian government as its governing authority for horseracing, and I carried out an inspection visit last November. The situation of Lithuania’s racing industry (if indeed it can be so termed) is remarkable.    I am frequently struck by how our sport can exist even in the harshest of financial or political environments.  For example, after the ravages of war, one of the first examples of a return to normalcy is often the re-establishment of horseracing. In Lithuania, it is not conflict that provides the challenge, but economics. With a pool of only some 30 horses-in-training (yes, there is no nought missing, I said 30), and no access (until now) to foreign-trained runners to boost field sizes and negligible income from betting, the barriers to establishing racing on a meaningful and self-sufficient scale are dauntingly high. Efforts are reliant upon the support and enthusiasm of a small number of individuals, and what they have managed to create in the face of these disadvantages strikes me as both extraordinary and heartwarming.    Lithuania’s sole racecourse is at Raseiniai, midway between the capital Vilnius and the Baltic Sea. Run right-handed, it has a 1200-metre sand track with a 200-metre spur, surrounding a 1000-metre turf track. The grandstand is substantial, with a welcoming glass-enclosed VIP area and new and extensive seating in the general area.    [PICTURE OF GRANDSTAND CROWD AT RASEINIAI RACECOURSE    Caption:    The Grandstand at Raseiniai racecourse]    Eight race meetings are staged annually, with four thoroughbred races on each card. Unsurprisingly, average field sizes fall between four and five, requiring each horse in training to turn out, on average, for five of the eight fixtures. They compete for €600 per race, in front of crowds that averaged around 50 three years ago but now range anywhere from 300 to over 1000. Spectators are treated to a commentary on the afternoon’s proceedings from which many major racing nations might learn. The president of the LHRA multi-tasks as commentator, and the lively commentary begins in the parade ring, covers the preliminaries, the race itself, and the winner’s enclosure, and it includes informative remarks about the procedures and rules of the day’s racing – all with an eye to educating, as well as interesting, the largely novice crowd.     Key to expansion would seem to be international acceptance, providing opportunities for horses struggling in neighbouring Poland, for example, to compete at a more modest level, and equally to give the best Lithuanian runners the chance to be tested in Poland, or even across the Baltic Sea in Sweden or Denmark. This was conditional on Lithuania adopting international standards of administration, and the LHRA have been keen to enshrine the principles of the International Agreement on Breeding, Racing and Wagering (the nearest that horseracing has to an international rules book) into their rules of racing. This willingness to learn and apply best practice was doubtless critical to achieving the unanimous decision of our members, in Athens, to accept the LHRA into the fold. Survival of racing in Lithuania will not be easy, but there is a great will to succeed and a big step has been taken. Already, a Polish-trained horse has competed at Raseiniai. It is important for all of us that racing, properly and responsibly run, exists in as many countries as possible, and the EMHF wishes Lithuania well.    [PICTURE OF EVELINA KOLBASNIK     Caption:    Lithuanian Horse Racing Association President, Evelina Kolbasnik, with Paull Khan at Raseiniai]

By Dr. Paull Khan

The Asian Racing Conference (ARC) was first staged 58 years ago and attracted less than 70 delegates. These days, it is held biennially, and the 37th ARC returned to Seoul this year – the third time it has been Korean-hosted.

The Racing

Prior to the conference, delegates had the chance to attend Korean Derby Day at Seoul Racecourse Park. Prize money for the 11-race card averaged over €100,000 per race, with the Derby itself – won by 2/1 favourite Ecton Blade, a son of imported Kentucky-bred stallion Ecton Park – worth €640,000.

The grandstands at Seoul are enormous structures, stretching far along the finishing straight and reminiscent of those at Tokyo racecourse. For many of the 80,000 racegoers who can be accommodated, there is the option of an individually numbered seat, not with any vantage point affording a view of the track, but rather deep in the bowels of one or another of five identical and cavernous floors. Each of these floors was packed this Derby Day with studious race fans, mostly deeply absorbed in their form guides, checking betting monitors, and scribbling notes, doubtless plotting betting combinations of fiendish complexity. The bias towards exotic bets is extreme in Korea, with just one percent of the handle directed at win bets.

By the time of each race, the crowds migrated to the viewing areas of the stands, looking out at the biggest big-screen in the racing world – which, despite its 150m width, is every bit as picture-crisp as one would expect from Korean technology.

Racing is an immensely popular spectator sport in the country. Annual attendances of 15 million from a population of just 50 million put European countries to shame. (For example, in Britain, where racing is the second most popular spectator sport, the 65 million population only make 6 million racecourse visits, and even on the island of Ireland, the ratio is not as impressive as in Korea: 1.3 million turnstile clicks from a population of 6.6 million). One might imagine that this results from a monopoly that racing enjoys when it comes to the gambling options available to Korean citizens. To some extent, this is true: there is but one casino in the whole of the country which Koreans may enter, and there is no domestic online betting offering. But betting – albeit to limited stakes – is allowed on a variety of other sports, a curious selection, including cycling and ssirum (Korea’s answer to sumo wrestling). And illegal online betting is widespread.

So the numbers can be seen as a great advertisement for the sport. And the crowds were fully engaged in the day’s activities: noisy and every bit as animated as one would find at Ascot or Flemington. But there is one striking feature of the scene at Seoul racecourse that sets it apart from virtually every other, outside the Middle East. It slowly dawns on one that these tens of thousands of committed racegoers are enjoying their long day’s racing…..with not an alcoholic outlet in sight! Proof that racing can thrive without an alcoholic crutch: further evidence of just how our sport, in all its diversity around the world, maintains its ability to surprise us and challenge our stereotypes.

The Conference

Those whose business is horseracing descended on Korea from Asia, Europe, and beyond. While the total of 600 or so delegates was some way short of the record numbers attracted to Hong Kong four years ago (tensions in Korea were particularly high at the time people were asked to commit to paying their USD $1,300 attendance fees, which could not have helped), to my mind, this ARC scaled new heights, in terms of the interest and relevance of the topics covered and the professionalism of the presenters.

Sweeping a bright but focussed spotlight across a broad range of issues of real moment to our sport worldwide, it illuminated such things as the frightening increase in illegal betting, the (to many) puzzling speed of growth of eSports, and the growing menace of gene doping.

The standout ‘takeaway’ from the conference for me was a talk on broadcasting technology trends by Hong Kong Jockey Club senior consultant Oonagh Chan.  While this fell within a session entitled “Reaching and Expanding Racing’s Fan Base” and focussed on technology advances in areas such as picture resolution and clarity, and how 360° video might attract new followers of horseracing, I was left pondering how dramatically they might also have an impact on stewards’ rooms around the world...

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