Kentucky Derby Gets HD Simulcast Treatment

By Ken Kerschbaumer

Last fall, Churchill Downs Simulcast Operations made the transition to HD, but this weekend will be the first time the track’s most famous event, the Kentucky Derby, will get the HD-simulcast treatment for visitors at the track, viewers at OTBs across the country, and even viewers who visit, the Churchill Downs Internet wagering site.

Since simulcast partners still need both an HD and SD version of the race, says Churchill Downs Director of Engineering Paul Kucharski, the heart of the simulcast production will be based on a Grass Valley Kayak switcher that will build the HD and SD program streams simultaneously, thanks to software introduced at the 2008 NAB Show that allows the technical director to tie different keys to different program streams. A Vizrt HD graphics package, created by Reality Check in Los Angeles, will play a key role this year, 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.

“Reality Check and International Sound Corp. were both great,” says Kucharski. “In the fall, when we went HD, the HD graphics put data in the side panels, and we didn’t try to do anything too difficult. But this year, Reality Check designed the graphics so the graphics are to the left of the 4:3 HD image.”

Churchill Downs’ new graphics package will be available on both high- and standard-definition signals. The design features bold colors and easy-to-read information in a clean, streamlined presentation, created to maximize visibility and improve the overall end-user experience.

By taking what were two narrow side panels and creating one larger side panel, Churchill Downs will be able to display even more wagering information, including pays, rankings, and other computer-generated data.

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

Installed at the track are 100 Sony commercial-grade HD sets that can decode MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 signals. Those televisions are 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 enjoy the HD experience.

“A lot of people are used to watching HD at home,” says Kucharski, “and we don’t want them to come to our facility or an OTB and have a lesser-quality production than they have at home.”

Visitors to Churchill Downs this weekend will also see more of the red-carpet action as celebrities enter the facility. “When you’re here at the track, you can’t see the celebrities, so the second unit will have its own crew and do a red-carpet show just like the Academy Awards or Emmys,” says Kucharski. The coverage will be SD, but, with at least 20 minutes between races (and an hour before the Run for the Roses), the SD eye candy will give attendees something to do other than ordering another mint julep.

As for serving the HD content to OTB facilities across the country, the continuing challenge is that the uplink from Las Vegas-based Roberts Communications Networks 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’re using an MPEG-4 and separate IRDs to deliver the HD signal,” says Kucharski. Wegener IRDs and Tandberg encoders will be used to uplink a 12-Mbps MPEG-4 signal, and then the signal will be transcoded back from MPEG-4 to MPEG-2. Eventually, the entire system will be MPEG-4.”

Churchill Downs continues to work with simulcast outlets across the country to make the HD experience available to as many customers as possible.

Password must contain the following:

A lowercase letter

A capital (uppercase) letter

A number

Minimum 8 characters