Kentucky Derby: Off-track and Online

Kentucky Derby: Off-Track and Online

On Derby Day, Holly Kruse discusses how horse racing has adapted to interactive and social media technologies. She is the author of Off-Track and Online: The Networked Spaces of Horse Racing.

The 142nd Kentucky Derby will be run today, May 7th, 2016, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The first Derby was run in 1875 and was won by a horse named Aristides. Churchill Downs’ founder, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., was inspired to create the Kentucky Derby after attending the 1872 Epsom Derby in England. Every May since the inaugural event, three-year-old Thoroughbreds have met on the track in Louisville; and since 1886, when the race was shortened from 1½ miles, the race has been run at the “classic” distance of 1¼ miles.

When we think of the Kentucky Derby, we think of the notable horses who have won the race, like the three-year-olds who went on after the Derby to win the Preakness Stakes in Maryland and the Belmont Stakes in New York, thus achieving the rare “Triple Crown”: Sir Barton in 1919, Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in 1935, War Admiral in 1937, Whirlaway in 1941, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946, Citation in 1948, Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, Affirmed in 1978, and American Pharoah in 2015. Perhaps we recall other great horses who have won the race over the years, like Exterminator (1918), Swaps (1955), Northern Dancer (1964), Spectacular Bid (1979), and the ill-fated Barbaro (2006). Or we might think of the three fillies who beat the colts in the Derby: Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980), and Winning Colors (1988). This year probable race favorite Nyquist, or a likely short-priced horse like Exaggerator or a likely longshot like Suddenbreakingnews, may add his name to the list of winners.

When we think of the Kentucky, we tend to think of the history and tradition signaled by the “Twin Spires” of Churchill Downs and the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” (which was originally an anti-slavery ballad, not a celebration of the South) during the post parade. We might not think about the role that the race itself, and horse racing in general, has played in the technologizing of leisure. For example, Churchill Downs pioneered the adoption of the pari-mutuel system used for most horse race wagering in the United States. In pari-mutuel betting, wagerers bet into a pool—a market comprised of everyone betting on the race—and the total amount of money bet on each horse for each kind of wager determines the odds on and the payouts for that horse. Churchill Downs experimented early with pari-mutuel wagering, and it ultimately replaced the system of on-track bookmakers offering set odds for horses with the pari-mutuel in early 20th century.

Pari-mutuel wagering requires rapid calculation of bets and odds, and in 1913 the totalizator (or totalisator) machine invented by Australian Sir George Julius went into service at the Auckland Racing Club in New Zealand, making the calculation process much easier and faster. The totalizator was an early computer. Indeed, there are many links between horse racing and the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs). In the 1940s, when the company that developed the UNIVAC computer was in financial trouble, a $500,000 investment from the American Totalisator Company helped save it.

Off-track betting on horse racing also pioneered ICT development. While in the 19th century telegraph-connected “pool rooms” or “horse rooms” enabled illegal use of the wires to transmit betting and race information, in the 1970s, racetracks in the United States began legally sending their signals through networks to off-track sites and accepting bets from these sites. Furthermore, the resulting design and redesign of racing’s spaces created interior television-monitor-viewing spaces that accommodate different forms of social interaction while customers watch and wager on races from across the country and even around the world. Large-scale renovation projects—like the one completed at Churchill Downs in 2005, and the further renovations begun last year at the track and now almost completed—further position racetracks as leisure and retail destinations.

Today, many people don’t need to leave their homes to legally bet on horse racing in the U.S. Phone-betting services like Philadelphia Park’s PhoneBet appeared in the 1980s. By the early 21st century, interactive television and/or internet horse-race betting and streaming services like TVG and later, and Xpressbet and others, became available. Betting on horse racing remains one of the few legal forms of online gambling available in the U.S.

Information and communication technologies play a role for racehorses, the unpaid laborers of racing, after race day. Once the horses cross the Kentucky Derby finish line, few viewers think about the runners again. Although it is rare for a Kentucky Derby winner to end up in a slaughterhouse, that was the fate of 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand. It was also the fate of Exceller, who didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby but who defeated two Triple Crown winners—Seattle Slew and Affirmed—in winning the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Today, Thoroughbred rescue volunteers who identify former racehorses at livestock auctions frequented by “kill buyers” (buyers who purchase horses to sell for slaughter in Canada or Mexico) use social media to provide real-time information and to attempt to raise money to bid against kill buyers: and to pay for veterinary care and months of food and shelter should they get the horse in the auction. They are usually able to rescue only a few. Maybe this is the most sobering intersection between horse racing and new media technologies to keep in mind on Derby Day.