Drones used to oversee horse races for first time in North America
Overhead view could help judges detect cheating
The agency that governs horse racing in Ontario launched an experiment Friday that's aimed at keeping jockeys honest: camera-equipped drones that can spy on races from high overhead.
Friday morning's pilot project at London, Ont.'s Raceway at Western Fair District was a North-American first. But although it was deemed encouraging by the sports governing body — the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario — it did not go off without a hitch.
Glitch hindered test flight
A fickle internet connection meant the video signal being sent from the drone to the judges was too slow, so a memory card containing race footage had to be unloaded after the drone landed and carried by hand to the judge's booth atop the grandstand — a delay that could irk bettors, said Brent Stone, the director of racing for the commission.
"That's one of the logistics we'll have to figure out," he said, but overall, the drone footage "was a big help to us."
"The drivers didn't notice the drone, and the horses themselves didn't notice the drone either," he said. "The footage we got today was encouraging."
The trials took place during qualifying runs for upcoming standardbred races, in which a horse pulls a lightweight cart steered by a driver, so no fans or betting were allowed.
Stone said the advantage of using drones is that their cameras can zero in on horses and riders during a race and instantly catch infractions that could lead to disqualifications — things like jockeys illegally leaning into their competitors or whipping their mounts inappropriately, a practice known as "urging."
Stone emphasized that the current system of monitoring races with stationary video cameras works well. But he said the commission wanted to see whether drones could make the sport even more transparent.
Lorne House, a driver who took part in the trials, gave the test the thumbs-up.
"Any angle the judges can get that's better for them can only help racing," he said.
Stone said further tests will now be done on the province's other two brands of horse racing, thoroughbred and quarter horse racing, but there's no deadline for determining when, or if, drones will be introduced as a permanent fixture.
The commission hired DroneBoy, a Hamilton-area company that specializes in aerial cinematography, to provide two drones for Friday's pilot project.
The company's crew included a pilot, who controlled the drone's height at about 20 metres and speed, about 45 km/hr. A second crew member controlled the video feed.