Live from the Derby: The Big Picture from Director of Engineering Paul Kucharski

For the past decade the video operations within Churchill Downs has been an evolution. From simply delivering the simulcast feed to a giant TV in 2004 to creating a backbench produced feed in 2006 and moving to HD in 2008. But this weekend the facility shows off $26 million worth of improvements within the grounds to a global audience of millions, including an anticipated audience of more than 16 million here in the U.S. Paul Kucharski, Churchill Downs, director of engineering, has been at the center of the video-related improvements, working closely with vendors like Panasonic, Grass Valley, Sony, Vizrt, International Sound Corporation, and Big Screen Networks.

“It’s been an incredible team project with weekly conference calls figuring out how to do different things,” says Kucharski.

The big news is the massive 4K board from Panasonic that measures 171 feet across and 80 feet high and is located just outside the backstretch.

While the world will be introduced to the new board later today the Churchill Downs faithful were introduced during an unveiling last week.

“Even I was surprised by the roar on opening night when they saw it for the first time,” says Kucharski. “We only laid the foundation in January and it was fun to see the infrastructure come up since then.”

There is little doubt that the screen could change the Derby experience for the better. Prior to this year race fans would rush in when the gates opened at 8 am in order to claim their seat along the fence.

“But that’s not the best seat now,” says Kucharski. “Now you want to be back a bit so you can see the screen and we also added in 750 PMK audio speakers.”

Token Creek Sioux is home to Big Screen Networks for the Kentucky Derby.

Token Creek Sioux is home to Big Screen Networks for the Kentucky Derby.

Also new this year is the addition of Big Screen Networks, the in-venue production experts that are seen at the world’s biggest events, including the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the U.S. Open tennis championships. They have been brought in to create a world-class in-venue video experience for horseracing fans, a new Grass Valley production switcher opens up some new workflows, and PMK installed more than 750 additional audio speakers to the infield.

“This is unlike any other venue in that our primary goal is to drive a simulcast production that is sent out to OTB (Off Track Betting) locations across the country and to also meet state requirements for video storage for official review,” explains Kucharski.

The operations on site this weekend include Big Screen Productions operating out of Token Creek’s Sioux production unit (Token Creek is also providing its Chippewa unit to WLEX Lexington) as well as a revamped auxiliary control room within the grandstand and what could be called Churchill Down’s most long-lasting warhorse: a core production trailer originally built in 1978 that was converted to HD in 2008 and now is home to arguably the world’s only 4K control room.

The decision to go 4K for the big board was driven by a couple of key factors. First, there is the need to future proof operations. But racing fans have another more pressing demand: the ability to easily read racing odds so that they can more easily place their bets.

“Some of the boards we own at our other tracks are standard definition and it can be hard to read the data and even on an HD board it can be hard to read,” says Kucharski. “So if we make the data easier to read it helps them figure out what they want to do. And with this screen we can also add a few more lines of text.”

The 4K resolution, however, will help bettors in more ways than just more clear betting odds.

“You can see the saddle towel numbers and also get a better sense of how the horse is running and whether they are struggling or holding back,” says Kucharski. “It will be a big help to handicappers.”

As for placement of the 4K camera the importance of getting clear shots of the finish line made it a no brainer in terms of location. The camera is also coupled to an Evertz Dreamcatcher for super zoom.

“The photo finish camera shoots 2,000 frames per second but the image is only 2,000 pixels so when you zoom in the resolution falls to a couple hundred pixels,” explains Kucharski. “With Dreamcatcher we can zoom in and have a clear look at the finish line.”

The auxiliary control room at Churchill Downs has control of a mix effect in the core production truck via a software interface.

The auxiliary control room at Churchill Downs has control of a mix effect in the core production truck via a software interface.

With respect to actual coverage of the races and paddock action the Churchill Downs production team has 14 unilateral Sony cameras and, for this weekend, six additional cameras: four Grass Valley LDX Series cameras provided from Token Creek and two RF cameras from BSI. Two of the Grass Valley cameras are located in the infield and outfitted with Fujinon 80x lenses and the other two are “make-and-break” handheld cameras.

All of the camera feeds are brought into the Utah router within the core production unit in the truck compound and then made available to both Big Screen Networks and the auxiliary control room in the Grandstand.

Other new gear in the core production unit includes a Grass Valley Karrera production switcher and new RTS Adam intercom system that allows all personnel to easily communicate with each other regardless of location.

“Anyone can talk to the talent over the IFB and it also allows discrete communications between us,” says Kucharski.

The Karrera production switcher also has a mix effect that is dedicated full time to the needs of Big Screen Networks. That mix effect is tied to a touch screen panel in the auxiliary control room that allows the technical director to punch desired content and effects.

As for the 4K workflow, the signal from the Sony 4K F55 camera is sent directly to a special Vizrt device that has eight HD SDI inputs. Four of those inputs are used to handle the 4K signal and 1080i signals are also brought in and up-scaled to 4K within the Vizrt processor.

International Sound Corporation, which handles graphics and data integration at Churchill Downs and hundred of other tracks, worked closely with the Vizrt team to also make sure that metadata for graphics like rider and horse information could be easily integrated within the Vizrt system.

The Sony F55-PMW 4K camera located above the finish line at Churchill Downs.

The Sony F55-PMW 4K camera located above the finish line at Churchill Downs.

“They were able to teach the Vizrt trainer some data pool shortcuts,” says Kucharski.

A Vista Spyder processor then takes content in from the Vizrt engine and sends six outputs to big board via the 24 strands of fiber. A scaled 1080i output is also available to be sent to other boards on the grounds as well as the TV channel.

So what’s next for Churchill Downs? Kucharski does see more 4K-acquisition gear in the future, especially for the entertainment side of race day and coverage of the winner circle and paddock area.

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