Racing's Love & Hate Relationship With Technology

Alex Waldrop tweeted out a story on Fantasy Sports which I referenced this morning. A commenter on the blog left the following:

"It cost an arm and a leg to build a racing database" - Don't think it's that expensive with the new technology. Average out the cost per racetrack per year it's not that expensive and would have huge benefits."

In the 1990's I played quite a bit of fantasy football with many of my University pals. I would get most of my data from the web to draft and field my team, and there was one site I frequented which had box scores back to the 1970's. One day I was chatting with a friend who was a programmer, with the hopes of scraping that box score data, placing it in a database and making the website searchable for fantasy football team managers.

I checked into the legalities of it, my programmer friend built his fancy data scraping tool, and away we went. Everything was fine. Not long after, my friend got a high paying job which turned his eight hour workdays to sixteen hour ones, and with a baby on the way, it died on the vine. The point was clear, though. It was not difficult or costly to create and promote fantasy stats and useful information to users.

Only a few years later many of these sites were taking hold and the NFL was more than happy to oblige. These sites were promoting the game of football to the masses, and it wasn't costing the NFL a dime. A couple of them were worth some money, too. I think we were on the right track.

In the early 2000's I shifted some of my thought for these ancillary activities to horse racing. I noticed there was a website that was scraping published harness race results and running lines from the web, and compiling it into a database. This is exactly what had been done in fantasy football. I contacted the owner, with the hope of creating software to look through old race results, build some models, look at trainer stats and the like, to get an edge on my betting. Or maybe even sell the software.

He noted that the industry was after him for scraping results. Even though the lines were published, just like a box score in a newspaper, and he was only republishing them in a user-friendly way, there was some sort of dispute. Not long after, his website was shut down.

I didn't want to give up, so I called around finding out how I could get this data. I wanted to do something with it: Try and model it, handicap better, hopefully make money, build a website, who knows. I asked how I could get few years of running lines on my computer - remember this is not asking for the world, this is asking for a few gigabytes of text that was already published for free and hosted on the web. The answer was that it would "probably cost more than $5,000".

I could not scrape it and use it as I wanted, just as thousands of fantasy football fans were doing with box scores, but it seems could pay $5,000 or more for it.

After that I would have to pay someone to build me a piece of software, and keep buying lines (not figs, nothing, just running lines). I expected this to cost me $10,000 or more, and I had no idea if it would even work.

I'd had enough at that point and figured it was not worth my while. I shifted my pursuit of handicapping to the thoroughbreds.

The chasm between trying to build a football database and a horse racing one was as wide as the Grand Canyon. One was fast, easy and welcoming. The other was difficult, strange and a "don't let the door hit you on the way out" experience. I had trouble with it, because I was wanting to give the industry thousands upon thousands of dollars a year in takeout revenue, and it was like I had the plague.

Racing has always had a love hate relationship with technology. It's not like any other industry I know of, except maybe the music industry, who gloriously messed up the early years of digital music.

When online stock brokers entered the realm, they jumped in with both feet. They created an interface and software that could make your head spin. They invested and reinvested millions and completed changed the stock buying and selling culture. As well, they offered their services at a low price. In the 1970's it cost $300 to make a trade, and you did it while calling a broker. Now, trades were $8 and you did it with a mouse.  The benefits of the Internet are low prices and harnessing technology to make for an easier, more pleasurable customer experience. Without both of those we probably would not be watching an E*Trade baby (although that might not be a bad thing).

Racing didn't quite jump in with both feet, in fact they barely jumped in at all.

Perhaps the best technology company in racing is Twinspires, through CDI. They invested and reinvested in technology, they've done the things (yes, I know it took awhile) that online poker sites and places like Betfair have done. But they've never embraced the price angle. They are like an E*trade who still charges $300 a trade. 2013 technology, 1973 pricing.

Most of the changes in racing are slow, and have to pass muster with myriad groups. To this day it is not uncommon to see a horsemen group person, or persons, say some nasty things about Twinspires. It's not uncommon to see taxes wanted to be placed on online bettors, like they're doing something wrong. It's not at all uncommon to see the meme, "these guys are pirates that take people away from the track". That's the same thing some NFL owners said in 1960 about television. Thankfully - for the NFL - they were outvoted.

How about exchange wagering? My goodness if you mention Betfair in some places in racing you'd think they were a bunch of Brits who punch babies.

States like Texas and Arizona (along with their horsemen groups) don't much care for online betting, either. The people who stand against betting racing online probably downloaded five songs on iTunes and bought their wife a new DVD from Amazon.com last week. That's fine of course.

From these same people you'll sometimes hear complaints like "racing has to get with the times with new technology". How can they do that if you don't let them?

It's love hate and it's been that way for a long, long time. If a fiefdom sees some immediate monetary benefit from technology they love it. If that technology is growth oriented but disruptive, they hate it. It's one of the reasons I think racing cannot keep up with other games and sports. We've spent our time arguing about technology based on whom it may affect or whom it may not, while the world around us was embracing it.


2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"If a fiefdom sees some immediate monetary benefit from technology they love it. If that technology is growth oriented but disruptive, they hate it."

No truer words were spoken.

Anonymous said...

Past Performances,horseracings dirty little secret.

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