ESPN’s Jockey-Mounted Cam Gives Viewers First-Hand Look at Breeders Cup

Horse-racing fans, both casual and devoted alike, will be drawn to ESPN’s Breeders Cup coverage from Churchill Downs this weekend, hoping to catch a glimpse of perfection: Zenyatta will attempt to become the first horse ever to go 20-0 in high-level competition and cement her status as the greatest filly of all time. The 20-0 mark, however, will not be the only first this weekend: ESPN will deploy a camera mounted to a jockey’s helmet for the first time ever.

“We looked at some test footage [on Wednesday], and everyone in the compound was raving about the quality of both the video and the audio as well as the access it gives you in a way we’ve never seen before,” says Mike McQuade, VP of studio productions for ESPN. “You really get to see things that you’ve never really seen before.”

The Viewer in the Jockey’s Seat
The digital camera weighs just 4 oz. — “smaller than a pack of cigarettes” — and is mounted on the jockey’s helmet. It is not a wireless RF camera, so ESPN will not be able to use it for live shots during the race. Instead, the memory chip will be removed from the camera immediately after the jockey using it dismounts. It will be raced back to the truck (NEP ND4) and ingested into the EVS server for use during highlight packages.

“It will be one of the last sequences we use [after each race],” says McQuade. “It will probably run after the main replay sequences, the presentation, the interviews, and so on.”

On Wednesday, ESPN completed a test run with the rig atop the helmet of jockey Julien Leparoux during a practice run. The camera captured his point of view as two competing horses converged on him during the race, resulting in disqualification of both horses.

“[Leparoux] was basically the lunch meat in between two slices of bread,” says ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame Jockey Jerry Bailey. “The shot that the camera got was awesome. It was almost like you were riding the horse. If we can get anything near that, it will be great for the audience to see. And it really helps the viewer get a feel for what the jockey is doing.”

Bailey adds that this is not the first time a jockey-mounted camera has been deployed; it’s just the first time it has actually worked.

“I tried this when we were riding, and the technology just wasn’t advanced enough,” he says. “It was very heavy, very noticeable, and there was a cord attached to the battery pack. But this is so small that it’s scary. Kudos to the jockeys who are doing this and the trainers and owners that are allowing it because it’s not invasive. It’s new, so it’s a little scary, but it’s very cool and worth it.”

Although the slate of jockeys wearing the helmet has not been officially laid out, jockey Mike Smith will not wear it during the Breeders Cup Classic finale, when Zenyatta will attempt to extend her unbeaten streak to 20 races.

“Mike Smith is going to wear it but not on Zenyatta,” says McQuade. “I wouldn’t want to ask him to wear it during a precious moment like that, and neither would ESPN. We are covering the story, we do not want to be the story. We’ve got plenty of other cameras to cover this historic run.”

The Sights and Sounds of Churchill Downs
ESPN will have a total of 40 HD cameras positioned throughout Churchill Downs, including positions on a crane, helicopter, inside the starting gate, stewards’ room, and, for the first time, two X-Mo cameras at the finish line. In the past, ESPN has used only shutter cameras to shoot the finish. In addition, ESPN will have 13 announcers on hand, a record for the event, McQuade estimates.

Also new this year will be a renewed focus on capturing the sounds and ambiance of the event, which returns to the legendary Churchill Downs for the first time since 2006.

“Our big push has been on the audio side,” says McQuade. “More microphones at the gate, more mics in the crowd, more mics everywhere. There is a lot of emphasis on natural sound. [Churchill Downs] is a special place, and we want to capture that.”

A Two-Day Marathon
In all, the event will be on the air for close to 10 hours dedicated to 14 races on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and, starting at 4 p.m. ET Friday and concluding after the Breeders Cup Classic at 6:45 p.m. Saturday. Both Friday and Saturday will finish under the lights for the first time in Breeders Cup history. ESPN will also air the Classic commercial-free (from 6:15 p.m. through the end of the race).

“I think the sheer volume of airtime on Saturday will change the pace [of the telecast],” says McQuade. “The elements will determine the pace. Because you have so little action, the elements become a crucial part of what we’re doing — whether that means higher in music, more energy, different voices. Pace and energy are big words that we’re using throughout our meetings this week.”

All Eyes on Zenyatta
There may be 14 races, but all eyes will most certainly be focused on one horse in the final race. Zenyatta’s presence looks to reel in a host of casual sports fans that may not usually watch horse racing. Catering to these viewers while retaining the hard-core racing fans can often be a tightrope to walk during the telecast.

“Zenyatta changes [the production in two ways],” says McQuade. “One, you have an audience that is not completely aware of these horses’ accomplishments. It makes you take a step back and make sure you’re explaining all those things for people who may be watching for the first time. Secondly, you need to make sure that you do not get so one-sided on [Zenyatta] that you’re forgetting the other 11 horses in the last race. If another horse wins, it can’t be the first time you’ve heard that horse’s name.”

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