Friday, August 16, 2013

Do away with thousandth of a second

Seeing is believing

A recent dead heat at Pune in Turf Club Trophy (Pic: RWITC)

Close photo finish verdicts, especially in horse racing where fortunes may be made or unmade on the outcome, is a touchy subject, and generally the root of heartburn for punters on the losing side of the decision. The author suggests there is a much simpler solution available which the race clubs must implement to win back their core customers' confidence...... 

TWO RACES run last week at two different centers have thrown up a very serious question that horse racing administrators in the country will have to attend to without any delay—because if they don't, unrest among professionals and punters who view themselves as victims of a questionable decision may reach a flashpoint someday.

On Monday (Aug 4), at Malakpet racecourse in Hyderabad, two horses—Palm Springs & Magical Spell—crossed the wire together in P M Bokadawala Memoroial Cup. It was a very close finish, even the vertical line drawn on the photo print seemed to be touching the noses of both the horses. But the judge ruled Palm Springs as the winner because the digital camera's software displayed time of 1:28.095 for Palm Springs, and 1:28.096 for Magical Spell, a difference one thousandth part of a second.

Four days later (Friday, Aug 9), the same thing happened at Bangalore when a photo finish verdict between Paras Mani & Perfect Soul in the Leading Owner Cup was resolved in favour of the former—who was adjudged winner by two thousandth parts of a second—again, though the line drawn on the print looked like touching noses of both the horses.


However, there was one thing different in the Bangalore episode. Neil Darashah, trainer of Perfect Soul who was adjudged as loser, did something that was definitely unprecedented in the history of Indian racing—and perhaps world racing too. He lodged a protest not for a foul against the winning horse or the winning rider, but against the judge's decision. In Neil's opinion, his horse Perfect Soul had not lost, and the judge should have declared a dead-heat.

"I saw the print, and felt it was impossible to tell which horse had won, both horses' noses looked like touching the line drawn by the judge," Neil Darashah told MiD DAY over the phone, "so I was within my rights to lodge a protest against the decision." Interestingly, Neil also cited the precedent of another case from the past, involving horses trained by two other trainers—Irfan Ghatala & Darius Byramji—being declared as dead-heated under the same circumstances, ignoring the digital timing which would have ruled in favour of only one of them as winner.

However, Neil's objection was overruled, and rather quickly too, not by deliberating on the point he had raised about the photo print and the line drawn by the judge, but solely on the ground that the timing generated by the camera software implied that Paras Mani had crossed the wire first—by a microscopic margin of two thousandth parts of a second!

Verifiability is important

I strongly feel the Bangalore stewards failed to grasp the gravity of the point raised by Neil Darashah. In this game where crores of rupees are bet on the nose of a horse, it's not just a question of giving a "technically" right decision, but also giving a believable, and more importantly, a "verifiable" verdict.

The bettors don't understand your high tech software or how it functions—they want to see, on television screens, with their own eyes, the photo finish shot with its mirror image so that they can confirm for themselves that the lines are properly drawn and are perfectly vertical, and that both the horses' lines (connecting the nose of a horse and its mirror image) can be seen as "distinct", "separate" and "perfectly parallel" lines. 

Then and only then the loser is going to be convinced that his horse has lost—not otherwise.

Without providing any of this, if the race clubs think they are simply going to tell their losing customers, 'Sir, you have lost by one thousandth part of a second because our camera software says so', the day is not far when such decisions will meet with angry—and perhaps violent protests. The administrators ought to realize that a sensitive and critical decision like a photo finish verdict in horse racing, which could potentially swing fortunes worth millions either way, must be backed by a credible and verifiable proof process, and not just a verbal assurance of some electronic system's flawlessness.

A simple test

Actually, there is quite a simple and straightforward test that dictates when it is obligatory to declare a dead heat between two horses, and it is this: 
If, on a standard size print, despite best efforts, the judge cannot draw, touching the noses of the two horses, two distinct, separate and parallel lines which are discernible to the naked eye, it ought to be declared as a dead heat.

Learn from the greatest race
The race clubs must seriously reflect why, even today, for the most popular athletic race in the world—the men's 100-meter sprint—times are published only up to two places of the decimal. Even its records are talked in those terms: Carl Lewis (9.86), Steve Mullings (9.80), Asafa Powell (9.72) and now Usain Bolt (9.58)—don't they have the latest technology? Sure they do. But more important, they have the common sense not to unnecessarily complicate the matter for their billions of followers.

The race clubs have all the more reason to limit the time to this (100th of a second) scale, because on a standard size photo print, 1/100th of a second can be told apart by two distinct lines, but if you wish to draw two discernible lines a thousandth of a second apart, then you would need paper size that is 100 times bigger, because the nature of magnification for an image is not just linear (10 times), but proportional to the area (10 x 10 = 100) times. 

There would also be another problem. The moment you magnify the image, the sharpness of the image is lost, diffusion sets in, and the outline of a horse's nose tends to merge with the background shadow, so that by itself defeats the purpose. If for nothing else, then at least for this reason the Indian race clubs must at once revert back to the times that are limited to only two places of decimals.    
Mirror image lends sanctity

Sometimes, the photo finish print is not immediately shown. If shown, the mirror image is mostly missing, not realizing that sanctity of the whole process depends on the mirror image. Lines can be drawn any which way to give a wrong impression in close calls. There is a whole science of optical illusion to support this apprehension.

Also, all over the world, the person officiating as judge, relying on his own eye, is obligated to write down his decision as soon as the horses pass the winning post, and seal it before consulting the photo finish camera or watching the slow motion replay. The reason for this ritual is very important. In the rare case when the camera might fail for some reason, the stewards are supposed to call for this sealed envelope and open it to announce the judge's verdict. This gesture of recording the first impressions before any other factor can sway your mind is packed with wisdom.

However, this practice is not scrupulously followed in Indian race clubs, and definitely not at the Bangalore race club. Because when camera failed during the finish of race #36 of the current Bangalore season, though most hawk-eyed punters felt certain that Royal Admiral had failed to catch up with Rebuttal's Hope, the judge,
after repeatedly watching the replay, declared a dead-heat and played safe.  

(c) MiD DAY


  1. Sir,first of all thank you for writing an article on close-finishes,I only hope that the turf clubs take a serious view and not just rely on technology. For instance in the most widely followed sport in our cricket there is DRS technology but still is it convincing enough? NO. Technology can be used as a guideline but to rely completely on technology is something our thrf clubs need to have seconf thoughts on.


  2. Hi, A nice one and very important one too. Nowa days depending and distributing Technology has become just a way of spending budjeted funds. Most important thing here is to maitain and recaliberate regularly to yield a perfect result each and everytime. If you ask me timetested FUZZYLOGIK & one tenth of a second mirror image is goodenough to pick out a winner otherwise youl need robotik jockys! Speaking of mirrorimages where from decades at Mysore installed long ago by an Australian I believe (whom I happen to meet one time when he was visiting someyears back)has stood the test of time and functioning extremely well where as I have realized that It is designed & Installed in such a way so as to give a clear benifit to the Rider properly riding sticking to the railings and riding straight rather than a wayward ride where he is certain to lose in the photofinish. Keep up the good work.

  3. Hello Prakash.........Good suggestion. By the way, why isn't the winning post visible in the pic above?

    1. The winning post photo finish camera is a different type of mechanism, way removed from its ancestor, thanks to the technology.

      It consists of a camera with a rotating film (moving at uniform speed) at one end, and a vertical mirror running parallel to and aligned with the winning post at the other end. A simple electronic beam (emitted by a diode) crosses the track and is focused on the mirror which gets cut (interrupted) by the winner's nose, and that triggers an electronic switch which starts the film rolling and recording images of all horses passing the finish line subsequently.

      So instead of the usual photo print you get a strip of positive print depicting the procession of horses exactly as they passed the finish line, only in the miniature form. So the winning post is obviously missing from the picture because the upper half of the print is filled with the same images captured by the camera through the mirror view. Thanks to digital technology, the whole process can be replicated on a computer screen today, and what they show you as photo finish view is nothing but the graphic on the computer screen.

    2. Thanks for the detailed explanation.


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