Churchill Downs Begins HD Horse-Racing Conversion

By Ken Kerschbaumer

This weekend, Churchill Downs becomes the first racetrack to go HD when it hosts the 2008 fall meet, which runs through the end of November. The move will give horse-racing simulcast and off-track “betting locations a reason to go HD and will also launch a conversion to HD within the track itself. “We will have separate HD and SD productions,” says Paul Kucharski, Churchill Downs director of engineering. “The 16:9 format shows the race much better.”

The production will revolve around one Grass Valley HD camera and 14 SD cameras. A Grass Valley Kayak production switcher will build the HD and SD program streams simultaneously, thanks to software introduced at NAB that allows the technical director to tie different keys to different program streams. A Vizrt HD graphics package will also play a key role, bringing additional wagering information to side panels in the HD stream that will encourage more betting. International Sound Corp. will provide the new high-definition graphics package with enhanced wagering information.

“Our hope,” says Kucharski, “is that bettors will be drawn to HD, pay attention to HD, and bet on Churchill Downs races as opposed to watching something else.”

At the track, Churchill Downs will install 100 Sony commercial-grade HD sets that can decode MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 signals. Those televisions will be spread throughout the facility in both luxury-seating locations and areas open to the general public. Locations include the Silks and Champions Club Lounges, the Jockey Club and first-floor Jockey Club, the Turf Club, Gold Rooms 2 and 6, the Finish Line Suites lobby, and the Directors, Stakes, and Aristides Rooms inside the clubhouse. The televisions will be marked with signage to help customers identify and enjoy the HD experience.

The biggest challenge for Kucharski and his team is ongoing: how will the 1,200 simulcast and off-track “betting locations receive and display an HD signal? “Today’s announcement is just the first step in what we hope will be a continuing process of HD upgrades, expansions, and improvements for our customers,” says Churchill Downs VP Tom Jenkins. “We’re also open to any interest from other simulcast outlets that may want to offer the Churchill Downs signal in high-definition. We’re looking forward to receiving and acting upon feedback from our customers to continue improving their experience at the races.”

The uplink from Roberts Communications Networks, based in Las Vegas, does not have enough bandwidth to deliver an HD MPEG-2 signal, and many of the OTB sites have analog systems. Going HD at off-track “betting locations will require new IRD systems, cabling infrastructure, encoders, decoders, and, of course, HD sets at all those locations.

“We are going to use MPEG-4 and separate IRDs to deliver the HD signal,” says Kucharski. Wegner IRDs and Tandberg encoders will be used to uplink an 18-Mbps MPEG-4 signal (next spring, it will be dialed down to 12 Mbps), and then the signal will be transcoded back from MPEG-4 to MPEG-2. Eventually, the entire system will be MPEG-4.

About a dozen OTB locations across the nation will take part in a test of the HD-delivery system before final gear is selected for a nationwide rollout.

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