Churchill Downs Productions front and center for Kentucky Derby

By Ken Kerschbaumer

For the vast majority of Americans the Kentucky Derby, best known for mint juleps, fancy hats, and fast hooves signals the true beginning of summer and hopes of a Triple Crown winner. For NBC all of those elements come together in a broadcast the first Saturday and May that focuses on beauty, power, and pageantry.

But for the minority that matters most to every racetrack, the hard-core bettor, all of that pageantry and beauty takes a back seat to racing odds, injury updates, and a simple need to know one thing: how is my horse doing? For David Loignon, Churchill Downs Simulcast Productions director, productions, making sure bettors are engaged and informed is job one.

“Our simulcast has a very different look from NBC’s where they’ll cut to different cameras several times during a race,” says Loignon. “The average viewer at home is watching the race as a sporting event. But the person at OTB wants to see their horse through the entire race. Cutting to different angles simply causes confusion.”

The simulcast relies on two Sony cameras that pan the race with one capturing the entire field and the other getting a tighter shot on the top two or three horses. Viewers of the simulcast will see both shots on a split screen until the horses come down the stretch where it switches to a single camera shot via a Sony 7000 digital production switcher.

While the Kentucky Derby stands out it’s really simply another race in two full days of racing at Churchill Downs. ESPN will begin broadcasting on Friday with the highlight being the Oaks Day race among three-year old fillies. And HRTV, an all-horse racing channel (partially owned by CDI) will do a production as well alongside TVG, an online horse race betting network that is owned by TV Guide. Four local TV affiliate stations will also be on hand.

Place Your Bets

Prior to the race the emphasis is on getting people to wager. “Two-thirds of the screen will be covered with graphics that show the odds, probable payouts, and other information on the horses,” says Loignon. “For every 30 minutes of simulcast only 15 minutes will have significant video content.”

Avid DekoCast units are used to build the graphics with a data feed pushing all of the TOTE (the wagering information) data and Equibase data into the system every 30 seconds. “The graphics operator just calls up the type of information they want to display and the system automatically puts in the proper information,” adds Loignon.

While the NBC telecast will use HD to show the striking lines of the horses and every detail of the track the simulcast side of the operations still operates in standard definition.

“Nothing would make myself and our head of engineering happier than going HD but we have a hard time making a business case and there are more valuable ways we can use our resources,” says Loignon.

The problem isn’t the cost of the production but rather the cost to replace thousands of SD TV sets at Churchill Downs with HD sets. In addition, all of the offsite tracks and betting parlors that show the game would need to invest in HD receive gear and HD sets. “I can put out a beautiful HD signal but no one will be able to receive it,” adds Loignon.

Going Digital

For now Churchill Productions is focused on rebuilding its trucks for the digital age. A new truck is being built out of an old ESPN trailer and will be completely digital. The Grass Valley Kayak switcher however does have an HD upgrade path and the truck will also have LCD monitors. It’s expected to be rolling out to Ellis Park in Western Kentucky in July.

A third truck that is used in Calder Race Course in Miami is also in the midst of a conversion with a Utah Scientific router and Grass Valley K2 server being installed. “The next step will be to improve the cameras,” says Loignon. It also features a Sony 7000 digital switcher, like the truck used for Churchill Downs and Del Mar Raceway in California.

And while NBC will focus on a quality Surround Sound experience with all of the pounding and excitement audio is not a priority for the simulcast. “The only thing that matters is being able to hear the guy calling the race,” says Loignon.

Once the big race is over it’ll be on to the next one as they’ll be off and running at Churchill Downs a mere 45 minutes after the Derby.

“We’ve spent the past three years moving this operation forward,” says Loignon. Expect other tracks to follow.

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