For some of us, watching TV is a process that, wherever possible, involves simply sitting on the sofa and ingesting whatever is flung our way by those in charge of programming. The experience was at its most relaxing back in the early 1970s when there were only three channels to choose from, colour was an optional extra and nobody ever lost the remote control because, like test tube babies and the SodaStream, they hadn’t been invented.
Imagine our bewilderment, then, when presented with multiple ‘zappers’, all of which look capable of sending William Shatner into space but seem determined never to work unless operated by somebody under the age of 12 with an advanced sense of disdain for their elders.
Well, I can tell you now, it’s going to get a lot worse, not least if you’re a racing fan. I know this because John Bozza (fourth generation British-Italian, in case you were wondering), CEO of RaceTech – the company in charge of broadcasting from all 59 British racecourses – told me so, although he presented it very much as a positive, capable of reaching out to a younger, wider audience.
“The challenge for us is to tailor the coverage to the individual,” he said, “so you can choose which screens you want to view, on your own device rather than on the big screen, and pick which camera angle you want to view.
“That’s the realm we’re moving into: more personalisation. You’ve seen a lot of it in other sports, people wanting to see just the footage from Lewis Hamilton’s helmet-cam or the back of his car, or the drone coverage, and that’s the way we’re going, although at the moment it’s very expensive to provide the extra cameras.
“As technology moves on, though, everything will become more possible and you’ll be able to select from ten different feeds to get the viewing experience you want, rather than relying on what’s broadcast to you.”
It’s a brave new world or an attack of the vapours, depending on your age and point of view, but there’s no doubting that RaceTech – founded 75 years ago as the Race Finish Recording Company, introducing the first photo-finish camera at Epsom in 1947 – is doing its bit to bring the British turf into the current century and beyond.
Of course, photo-finishes are now decided by digital cameras that take 2,000 lines per second and work to one pixel’s worth of accuracy, but it was little more than 20 years ago that they were still using film, developed in a tray of liquid and ferried on foot up to the judge’s box, which makes the speed of development in the past couple of decades all the more dizzying.
None of it stops punters grumbling about how long it takes to come up with the result – or human error making a pig’s ear of the process – but racing’s regulatory body these days has more information immediately at its fingertips than might have seemed possible barely a decade ago.
“We’ve changed the way we supply pictures to the stewards,” explains Bozza, a 50-year-old racing man and sometime greyhound owner from Essex. “It’s gone from stewards talking to an individual in a truck to access different camera feeds, to a remote-control system we call the Dreamcatcher, where the steward has control over which camera they want to look at or pause or replay.
“That’s been rolled out across all our trucks, and now the content is ingested into the BHA archives in a matter of minutes, available to be viewed instantly, where it was once a manual process, recording on to a disc, which was then sent to our office in Raynes Park [south-west London], taken out of the envelope and downloaded, which used to take days.”
These are all neat tricks with which to impress the uninitiated, but outside, on a secluded patch of tarmac behind a fence a stone’s throw from Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, sits the nuts and bolts of the operation.
RaceTech, as you may not know, is in charge of starting stalls, handlers, public address, racecourse TV and even much of a tracks’ social media content – “so we’re truly embedded in racing and passionate about it, thanks to 75 years of heritage,” as Bozza puts it – but the part most of us care most about is what he calls “delivery”, turning up on 362 days in 2021 to bring racing into our homes, whether the sun’s shining at Goodwood or the snow is falling at Sedgefield. And ‘OB10’ is at the heart of that delivery.
OB10 – the company’s tenth outside broadcast truck, which arrived at the track yesterday afternoon to be readied for action – is really quite something. It’s roughly £3 million worth of third-generation tech-laden transport, from which will be controlled, co-ordinated and distributed the pictures of this afternoon’s sport.
From the outside, it looks much like a very smart articulated lorry, but inside it’s plainly part of the new generation of televisual wizardry, stepping up from the existing fleet of OB units which were added to of necessity when RaceTech took over broadcasting at all the Arena tracks.
There are banks and banks of screens, as you might expect, tweaked and twiddled by all manner of knobs, buttons, sliders and switches, all lit up to the point where it’s hard to know whether we’re about to produce a best-selling album, land a jet airliner or just broadcast the Discover Newmarket Fillies’ Restricted Novice Stakes (Div I) into the homes of a racing nation.
At the controls is Chris Clark, a 21-year veteran of the company, now director of technology and innovation, who has witnessed a minor revolution in his time.
“I came from an electronics background and started at RaceTech as a workshop engineer, supporting the crew,” he explains. “Having been an engineer delivering these facilities, now I’m looking at innovation and future technology, but it’s important to be at the racecourse when you can, to keep your hand in, keep a feel of what’s happening on the ground, because things change so quickly.”
Bozza has been with the company a mere four and a half years, but he’s overseen perhaps the headiest period of innovation and transformation of all.
“It’s been a period of tremendous growth,” he says. “We now provide coverage at over 1,500 fixtures, from 800 four years ago; we have seven bases across the UK and our trucks are located the length and breadth of the country; we have over 150 permanent staff, nearly 400 with freelance support during the busy months; and the scale of the operation has grown enormously, with 105 vehicles and 30-plus banks of starting gates. It’s a big machine now.”
It’s a big machine, that’s for sure, and one whose inner workings are made all the more complex by the fact that RaceTech has many masters to serve. Ultimately it’s owned by ‘racing’, in the shape of the Racecourse Association, but from that central RCA hub spring multiple ‘rights-holders’, agglomerations of letters like RMG, SSR, HKJC – and now, of course, ITV’s own picture coverage to supplement – all with their own highly individual demands.
“We’re not selling the rights ourselves, but we have to be aware of everybody’s needs,” expands Bozza. “They may want their own presenter on course, or different cameras and graphics to enhance their own coverage, perhaps more coverage from the parade ring or the start, which as a sole provider for the entire fixture list, we have to be in tune with.
“There are more people to keep happy, but it’s not hard, it just requires more planning and foresight.”
Into this complex equation, 18 months ago, came the kind of pandemic everybody could have done without, which tested RaceTech’s powers of organisation and innovation like nothing else in its 75-year history. Furloughing became remote working became a tightrope of new working practices and ever-shifting sands of government regulation. It was a morass of health, safety, moral obligation and ‘the show must go on’ spirit, but it turns out that some good did come of it.
“It was the biggest challenge I’ve known in my career,” says Bozza, a lifelong worker in the TV industry, “but we were very fortunate that everyone in racing pulled together to get things back as quickly as they did, which was truly inspiring – especially for a sport that often gets a bad press for being divided.
“We had to be very strict in terms of the protocols we put in place ourselves, and the scheduling team, although they were working remotely, had to be so on the ball, but it worked very well and the remote working concept is one that sped up because of Covid and has remained in place.
“We’re now looking at a hybrid way of working, and equally we’ve had to challenge every role on the racecourse, to the extent that I think the idea of remote production is here to stay.
“The hub at Raynes Park can remotely control various bits of kit that are in the truck and we’ll continue to test that, to see if it’s a smarter way of working, so if somebody is ill you have the ability to do something remotely from a disaster recovery perspective, which is a way of thinking Covid drove us into.
“There’s also the angle of efficiency and sustainability: you’re working smarter, not driving as many people around, so technology is enabling us to meet social and environmental demands, work greener and cut rising fuel costs, and it could change the way we operate for good.”
Necessity has clearly been the mother of invention, which is a state of mind that has driven RaceTech since the early days of photo-finishes and starting stalls. There is a focus on callow youth, as much as on diehard racing veterans, to help drive the technology in ways that may engage a new audience. But there is no place for follies or vanity projects when it’s cash-strapped racing that’s footing the bill.
“We have people who have been with us for 30 years,” explains Bozza, “and that intimate knowledge, that relationship with people at the racecourses, is ingrained in us, but this year alone we’ve taken on 14 trainees, from different universities, media courses, technology courses, who bring new ideas and new ways of thinking; people who are hugely passionate about technology but don’t know a thing about racing. So we have both ends of the spectrum, a real sense of diversity and inclusion, of attracting people that maybe racing hasn’t attracted before, with a view to attracting a new audience as well.
“But with all technological advances, we have to analyse whether there’s a cost benefit, an environmental benefit, a production benefit. For example, we developed the ‘across-the-line’ camera in house. It was super slo-mo pictures that were being used in crash test analysis, we took it and adapted it to be used at a racecourse and it’s now in use at all fixtures.
“Equally our rights-holders may come to us and say we’d like improved coverage at the start, or in the parade ring, or drone coverage, the tracker camera, and we’ll continue to challenge ourselves, with maybe fixed cameras on the stalls, perhaps a greater interaction with participants, with the jockeys themselves, testing ideas from other sports to improve the experience for the racegoer and the viewer, but always we ask ourselves: does it have enough long-term benefit that we can bring it to market?
“Because there’s no point innovating for innovation’s sake. It has to have a value. Will it keep people on the racecourse, bring more people to the racecourse, more viewers to the screen, more betting turnover, is it saving money? If the answer to all this is no, but it’s nice, we have to be looking elsewhere.”
It’s a rare insight into a new world of innovation that certainly hasn’t left the turf behind. RaceTech is making sure of that, as Bozza concludes: “New ideas are always exciting and racing certainly isn’t ‘too old’ to be part of this. Its audience is changing and part of the challenge is to broaden its appeal. It was great to be part of the Sunday Series and the Racing League, and I think new ideas can help change the demographic and keep racing moving forwards.”