Horse Tracks Spruce Up for a New Season

Earlier this year, California Chrome got two-thirds of the way to winning the first Triple Crown that horseracing has seen since 1978. Although the horse’s loss at Belmont Racetrack in June disappointed many, it also seemed to both prompt and underscore a burgeoning revitalization at the 50-plus thoroughbred racetracks in the U.S. A number of tracks, including the iconic Saratoga Race Course in New York and Golden Gate Fields in California, are reporting bigger crowds and larger handles (the amount of money wagered in the pari-mutuels). And the track’s broadcast and AV technology aspects are also getting a burnishing.

The broadcast center at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, FL, this past summer produced a good-looking and good-sounding show for fans at the track watching on the scores of LCD displays around the track, the bar, the attached casino, and its sports book as well as for viewers at home watching the feed distributed through Horse Racing Television (HRTV).

“Gulfstream doesn’t have HD video yet, and nor do most tracks, but it’s a beautiful racetrack,” notes Joe Gordon, EVP, International Sound Corp. (ISC), which maintains the broadcast systems at Gulfstream and dozens of other tracks. He estimates that fewer than 10% of the horse tracks in the U.S. have HD video for their broadcast feeds, for on-campus distribution, or for jumbo displays like Gulfstream’s Daktronics infield board. But, he adds, HD video is the most inquired-about upgrade that ISC is hearing from its venue clients.

In many cases, the tracks need to keep up with what’s taking place around them. Many tracks have added other entertainment activities, such as music concerts. Gulfstream is in the middle of a huge and expanding upscale retail, dining, and residential complex, with a hotel planned. The campus is anchored by an 11-story, $30 million bronze-and-steel statue of Pegasus trampling a 220-ft.-long dragon, which was shipped in 60 packing containers from China. The track’s main revenue generator is its huge casino, but Gulfstream expanded its racing schedule this year and next; its 2015 season of thoroughbred racing kicks off Saturday Dec. 6 with the 15th running of the $1 million Claiming Crown stakes race.

Challenges of Older Venues
Other tracks have also upped their AV stakes. Churchill Downs installed a 171- x 90-ft. video screen just prior to this year’s Kentucky Derby. It is buttressed by several newly installed sound-reinforcement systems for all the outdoor areas, with nearly 60 clusters in the grandstands comprising Danley Sound Labs SH50, SM96, and SM60F loudspeakers as well as TH212 subwoofers, designed by Dallas-based Marsh/PMK International. ISC also recently upgraded the Meadowlands harness track in East Rutherford, NJ, and the Mahoning Valley Race Course in Youngstown, OH.

The Churchill Downs installation underscored the fact that much of the horseracing infrastructure in the U.S. is quite old. Gulfstream, for instance, celebrates its 76th anniversary next year. Churchill Downs’ iconic twin-spired grandstand dates to 1895, with additions on either side made piecemeal during the last century bringing current capacity to 52,000.

“All of these sections have slightly different profiles,” recalls David Marsh, owner of Marsh/PMK, which installed the sound systems at the legendary facility. “There are varying ceiling heights, seating depths, and column spacing. It was a unique situation that required careful planning. Unfortunately, Churchill Downs did not have CAD drawings of the facility.”

In fact, PDF drawings provided to Marsh/PMK trickled in over a period of weeks, and none of them were to scale. “This put the already tight design schedule in serious jeopardy.” he says. “How were we going to get this project into EASE [for coverage modeling], and how were we going to produce usable CAD backgrounds?”

Consultants Tim Lindstrom and Melvin Saunders used dimensions obtained during the initial site survey to create rescaled PDFs. Melvin used Google Earth to confirm or correct the dimensions and then created a SketchUp model of the complicated grandstands. The SketchUp model was imported into EASE, which finally allowed a detailed loudspeaker-system design.

Although not every track upgrade requires that much ingenuity, Gordon agrees that many tracks need to upgrade their live sound. “Many of the sound systems are aging,” he says. “The hope is that they will upgrade as time goes on. Speaker upgrades can improve the sound of existing systems dramatically.

“But we are getting more calls about tracks that want to look into HD video and improved signal quality,” he adds, on an upbeat note. “There is a sense of revitalization going on in horseracing now. The handles are up. The feeling is that many tracks are getting ready to make the plunge into new systems.”

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