Anyone with any interest whatsoever in horse racing will be familiar with the photo finish. Two or more horses with their jockeys straining to get to the line first in a photo to determine who wins the race and who finishes second and third.
Obviously the accuracy is key; so much money is invested in the result through betting that any mistakes would be very costly. So, with technology moving on apace in recent years it is no surprise that horse racing, and in particular major events such as the Grand National, is taking advantage of latest developments to ensure that accuracy is repeated in every race that takes place.
A company, called RaceTech is at the heart of this latest technology. The company has considerable heritage in the sport, beginning its life just after the Second World War as the Race Finish Recording Company.
This was when photographs were first discussed as a way of deciding the results of races when the naked eye was unable to assist and the Jockey Club was instrumental in getting this into horse racing.
By 1947, during the flat racing season the photo-finish was first used and soon became an essential ingredient in a tight race. Further technological advances followed and by 1950 electronic race timing was introduced.
RaceTech, which has existed throughout this exciting period in the sport’s history, is now an established part of courses throughout the country as it is owned by the Racecourse Association which is the trade association of all 57 race courses throughout the country.
Coming to the present day, while the function of the photo-finish is the same as it was when first introduced in 1947, the technology behind the image produced is very different.
Early images had horizontal shutters which had the effect of capturing the horse on the inside of the track but the horse on the outside would still be in motion. This caused inaccuracies as the horse on the outside appeared to be ahead even when it was not. A strip camera came next, producing a single vertical slit as opposed to the horizontal shutter.
Throughout the years the cameras have changed and the technology behind them improved until we get to the situation today where a single mirror with two cameras is now used to capture the image we get to see on the screens immediately after the race.
The two cameras – digital of course – have different functions with one covering the whole width of the track with the other concentrating on the part of the course furthest away from the cameras to make greatest use of the mirror attached to the winning post.
The pictures actually produced are now consisting of millions of pixels with a vertical line of these producing an image of the line up to 2,000 a second, all of which can be used to create the defining image to be used by the judge and the ruling authorities to decide which of the horses crossed the line first.
As soon as the horses cross the line the image gets printed with copies instantly going to the judge at the particular course as well as the British Horseracing Authority, the governing body of the sport. Then, as soon as the copies are printed and sent out, the image will be made available to the wider public, watching the race live or on television.
Of course the photo-finish is not now solely limited to horse racing, athletics uses it for tight races, any race, human or animal which involves crossing a line, is likely to use the photo-finish to determine the winner.
In 2014 the technology has developed to an extent that, though doubts can still be cast on the official result, it is difficult to see how. No doubt more technology will be brought introduced in future years to give even greater security to those determining the result.