Dropping a Pin at the Quarter Pole: Equibase’s GPS Play

Dropping a Pin at the Quarter Pole: Equibase’s GPS Play

Examining the acquisition of American Teletimer Corporation (ATC) by Equibase subsidy TrackMaster and what it means for the industry.

Updated: Jan. 14, 2020 • 5:25 PM ET

Technology continues to evolve the sport of horse racing.

If you were born before the late 1970s and near a television on Jan. 28, 1986, odds are, you probably remember when the image reached the upper atmosphere. Then, it was still somewhat newsworthy watching humans launch into space. Yet, that day became a dark one, as seven souls aboard the Challenger were lost in a massive explosion.

The trajectory that followed led many to call into question whether the shuttle program should continue. Cooler heads prevailed, and there were all sorts of effects in the aftermath. However, shuttering the doors in Houston wasn’t feasible.

Something subtle that emerged out of the catastrophic event was the grounding of any new GPS satellites that were being developed by large military defense contractors.

In his book “Pinpoint,” Greg Milner reminds us that during the 1980s, Americans bore witness to a boom in Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that could accurately zoom in on specific points plotted on a map. Private companies leapt forward from the grounding of those satellites, and this in turn revolutionized an industry.

The days of ordering old school AAA TripTiks and dullard men refusing to pull over for directions were numbered. GPS truly became a neutral technology for all. The sky was, and still is, truly the limit.

Speaking of tech, for over a century, horse racing has relied on the latest innovations to advance its own cause. Tote machines, simulcast betting, and even the use of light beams systematically placed around the ovals to record accurate splits assisted the track in becoming a forward-looking place. Thus, race courses across America became responsible for their clocking, and many took it very seriously. Soon, workouts were timed, and race recording became even more quantifiable.

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Still, compared to other international tracks, North American ones are slow in adopting even more precise methods of timing like the use of GPS during races.

That is now changing.

Recently, the data-driven company known as Equibase extended its tentacles even further by announcing that its subsidy, TrackMaster (what’s in a name?), will acquire American Teletimer Corporation (ATC), the leaders in providing timing, photo finish and video services for thoroughbreds, this month. This story might seem fairly innocuous. After all, a major company diversifying its business model isn’t unusual; John D. Rockefeller wouldn’t bat an eyelash.

But this is Equibase, the company that seems unwilling to democratize and offer free horse racing data to the consumer. Now, they’re controlling important mechanisms of time and space.

In particular, GPS is used in a variety of different functions, from terrorists in Central Asia to Pokemon Go players in parks. Despite utilizing 32 satellites that are officially operated by the largest and most powerful military industrial complex on the planet, it still makes errors.

It is not too fatalistic to muse that an outage could cause humanity to return to the Dark Ages. 
I’m not playing the risks to automation argument card here, but what I am saying is that the immovable Luddites from Britain in the early 19th century existed for a reason. When their craft was threatened, they offered a reminder of the dangers of industrialization.

Thus, in the spirit of checking supposed progress, we might ask: How will Equibase use this timing power they have acquired? And, for that matter, what could it possibly mean for the sport?

Some answers might reside in the fact that in our worlds, we are continually introducing better and more efficient digital technology to govern what humans used to do. Yet, it’s not foolproof, evidenced by the horror stories from people who have driven off cliffs or been stranded in deserts by following roads that do not exist.

So, if Equibase finds errors or is hacked by an 18-year-old utilizing GPS, how will they address this? What checks will be implemented to prevent it from happening again? In a sport driven by expensive investments and large pools of cash, shouldn’t something be put in place to advance the metrics?

Maybe what Equibase needs to move toward is more transparency in the wake of TrackMaster’s hegemonic takeover of the horse racing universe. Time is everything for trainers and punters alike.

We should remember that just like in baseball, tennis or boxing when digital technology is introduced, it fundamentally changes the scope and feel of the sport. Is GPS the answer for horse racing? It might bring new graphics for simulcast or make the times at Kentucky Downs undulating race course more accurate.

What is for certain is that Equibase will certainly use this opportunity to charge their patrons for those newly developed products. This story reminds me of an example from Milner’s work in Pinpoint when he talks about the navigation techniques of the Polynesian peoples as they traverse the chain of distant islands off the Pacific Rim.

There was a time when no chart or conventional map was needed for men and women to travel the ocean in an outrigger. They just knew from the observation of birdlife, or the rise and fall of the waves and where they were headed. Their GPS was in the power of their minds, not contained in something powered by a lithium battery.

Many of the old ways are lost.

Now, mapping digitally the sprint or route that a horse takes around a racetrack may be the answer to horse racing’s battle with conformity and consistency. But, with each decision, are we not racing against another clock? One that reflects the fact that the decisions that are made today will have important ramifications tomorrow.

Drop those pins carefully, Equibase. Tick, tick, tick, tick…

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