Updated: Sep 9, 2021
A photo finish… It might seem like a brilliant spectacle, two horses thundering towards the finish line neck and neck with nothing to choose between them. But for a punter, it can cause quite the stir. Trying to distinguish which horse has put its nose in front from a still image isn’t always easy, especially considering other factors such as if the horse's head is rising or not. These factors all contribute to the final outcome and the decision that the judge gives, but they are not always correct. Sometimes it is simply too close to call and both horses are placed 1st, but there have been occasions when two horses are seemingly level but one is awarded the win. This is a feature within horse racing that has been heavily disputed on several occasions, so let's take a closer look at some recent examples.
Firstly, let’s understand what a photo finish and a dead heat actually are. As per its definition, a dead heat in horse racing is a situation where at least two horses cross the finishing line level with each other, and it is deemed to be so close that no difference between them can be resolved. The result is declared a tie and they are awarded a joint ranking.
A photo finish occurs in horse racing when multiple horses cross the finishing line at nearly the same time. As the naked eye may not be able to determine which of the competitors crossed the line first, a photo or video is taken at the finish line and may be used for a more accurate check. A photo finish is reviewed after every race where the winner is not obvious, this usually leads to a winner being decided.
In horse racing specifically, a snapshot photo is taken of the horses in question so the position of their noses can be analysed against the winning post. Upon closer inspection, if no clear advantage can be found then it will be declared a ‘dead heat’. Improvements in technology, including digital super-slow-motion replays and pressure-sensitive digital timers, have increased precision in resolving dead heats. This should therefore mean it is easier to distinguish a winner, removing any potential issues and disputes. This isn't the case, however.
So what technology is used? The company 'RaceTech’ uses its Photofinish Technology to analyse and determine a race winner. This technology has progressed significantly since it began in the 1940s and now uses super slow-motion replays and pressure-sensitive digital timers alongside a single mirror with two cameras to capture the relevant image and give an indication of time splits. The image is printed immediately on-site and made available to the judge, as well as being sent via the internet to the British Horseracing Authority within moments of the race being completed. Two digital cameras are fixed in place in the photo finish booth high in the stand – one to cover the whole width of the track and the other to focus on that part of the course furthest away from the camera. This makes use of the strip of mirror attached to the winning post to get the best view and final image. It also allows the judge to get a good view of the far side of the course as the view from the judge’s box is restricted. All of these factors help to make a decision as quick and precise as possible.
Although there have been significant improvements in the technology used to minimise problems, the judge somehow seems to still get it wrong from time to time. Here are some recent examples.
The most recent example is from a race at Chelmsford which sparked debate when a horse trained by Brian Barr was declared to have finished in 2nd place, beaten by a nose. Not only does the image clearly show both horses tied as they approach the line, but if any case could be made it’s that Brian’s horse is on the nod as it hits the line whereas the other horse is not. Barr acknowledged that the judge has access to more technology than the basic image published to the public demonstrates, but stated "I haven't spoken to anyone yet who can say it's not a dead heat. Until someone can show me evidence of him being beaten then I'll look to appeal it on Monday, I'll argue a case anyway."
It is apparent from this that the image that is shown to the general public is considerably lower quality than that available to the judges, and as so it is questionable as to why this image cannot be shown to everyone to settle debates. More on this later…
It's not just the UK that has this issue either, a similar situation occurred at Caulfield racecourse in Australia a few months prior, when an even-money favourite hit the line tied with another horse. The result was concluded as a dead heat but upon closer inspection of the photo available to the general public, it is quite clear that there is a gap between one of the horse's noses' and the line, therefore meaning a clear winner should've been determined. Robert Cram, the steward in charge of the meeting, came out publicly to defend the decision made by the on-course judge. He said: "The judge has access to the pure form of the digital image, it's straight from the camera to the computer, and it's the purest form without any pixelation or distortion. What you're seeing on the TV monitors is not as pure form of the image as what the judge has available to him in the judge's box." As it turned out, connections of both horses viewed the images with judges before the dead heat verdict and all were satisfied that there was no margin.
The judges have all the tools to view the images in HD and so they are very precise when making a decision, but it begs the question as to why we the public aren't able to see the same photo. The public see a converted PAL image on the TV which is slightly different and thus causes discrepancies between the judges’ decision and what they can see at home. When the image is inflated for PAL, distortion is introduced which is often the cause of these issues. It's difficult to understand though how the 'distortion' could alter the image enough to show a marginal winner on one copy but not on the other.
A final recent example is from Cheltenham in November 2020 involving the horses Elle Est Belle and Ishkara Lady, with on-course judge Guy Lewis calling a dead-heat amidst the murky conditions. Punters on social media were quick to argue the point that Ishkara Lady hit a much lower price in running, indicating that it was more likely to/had won. Although the fading light conditions were at play here, it again shows that despite the advances in technology, the call made by the judge compared to what the public gets to see on the TV often causes issues. The image provided by RaceTech in this instance was so gloomy and dark that it was of no use to anyone, and only by increasing the brightness and contrast of the image can you see any concrete evidence. In this case, the image provided seems to show Ishkara Lady on the near side with a slight advantage, however as stated this result was settled as a dead heat.
A BHA spokesperson said: "To call a winner the judge has to be certain that one horse has crossed the line first. In this instance, in the dark conditions, it was not possible to say with certainty that either horse finished in front, even even though the judge has access to a higher definition image than is posted online. Therefore a dead heat was correctly called and this decision was verified by the stewards."
Although it is clear that we have seen significant technological advances in recent years with regards to photo finish technology, there are still many factors that could be improved to minimise the number of discrepancies and controversies relating to a result. Firstly, why shouldn't the general public be able to see the same image as the judge? Yes, they have far superior technology and means of looking into it compared to the naked eye and a TV screen, but to at least quell some debates and difference of opinions between the judge and the other party; I believe the same universal image should somehow be made available to all parties. There needs to be a way of introducing some form of software that allows everyone to view the same image, else the PAL version isn’t a fair reflection on the judges’ decision.
Also, I believe there should be some means of introducing a system where the computer has an input and can analyse the distance between each horse and the winning line, which again is then shown to the public. We know that they now use pressure-sensitive digital sensors, but none of this information is shown or relayed to the public following a photo finish situation. This would therefore mean that it’s not purely down to the eye of the judge and the sensors to make the decision thus making it more accurate and also allowing the public to see how the result was concluded with some numerical evidence.
Finally, potentially seeing the image from multiple angles i.e. from both sides and the front could help further prevent any potential conflictions in opinion and it would give a more rounded view. This means you can analyse the image and compare it from one angle to another. It may also be beneficial to see the angle of the winning post against the direction that the horses are running, as in many jumps races the horses will not be running in a perfectly straight line in relation to the winning post. This would therefore again make it easier to compare.
There have been significant improvements in the technology used which has reduced the number of dead heats called, however, it is apparent more still needs to be done to generate a clear image that is available to everyone and reduce the likelihood of a debate with more concrete evidence. It is worth noting that all of the issues mentioned above occurred in the past few months and so is a good indicator that further action needs to be taken regarding this. What do you think? How do you think it could be improved further?