The Science of Horse Racing: The Photo Finish Camera

May 20th, 2022

Many a race, from an allowance contest on a Wednesday to a stakes on one of racing’s biggest days, has come down to a photo finish, a technological marvel meant to remove the fallibility of the human eye in favor of the certainty of the electronic eye. Eighty-five years later, the camera itself may have evolved from film to digital, but the way that the photo finish works remains the same.

Learn more about this essential piece of racetrack equipment, from the pioneers working with single-exposure cameras and film baths to a filmmaker who developed the system we know today.

First, the Eye of Men

Any competition that ends at a finish line uses some type of image-based technology to determine both the participants’ places as well as their times. From track and field to horse racing, photo finishes can be used to determine winners, lessening the chances of a dead heat, and then capture official times. The goal was to eliminate any sort of opportunity for human error — or criminal influences — to compromise the result and the confidence of the fans and bettors on hand.

Close races came down to the decision of a human standing at the finish line long before the photo finish became possible. Famed breeder and owner William Woodward sent his 1935 Triple Crown winner Omaha to England for his four-year-old season, with the goal of winning the 1936 Ascot Gold Cup. The 2 1/2-mile race came down to the wire, with Omaha and the English filly Quashed finishing in what seemed to observers a dead heat. Instead, Malcolm Hancock, the placing judge stationed near the wire, said the winner was Quashed by a head. Many fans present for the battle, though, favored calling the race a dead heat.

Long before Quashed and Omaha duked it out, racetracks had tried to institute some sort of photo finish system. As early as 1888, Earnest Marks attempted to capture the finish of a horse race, but none of his images survive. John Charles Hemment’s 1890 photo captures three horses reaching for the wire, but none have crossed yet, exposing the shortcomings of a single-exposure camera. For a human to time the click of the shutter at the precise instant of horses across the finish line was difficult since no shutter could move quickly enough to capture a split-second image.

No, it was going to take some ingenuity to make the photo finish happen. In addition to the starting gate, the 1930s gave rise to this necessary innovation.

Then, the Eye of the Camera

From Hialeah in Florida to Santa Anita in California, photographers experimented with iterations of the setups meant to catch the finish on film. But shutter speeds for a single-exposure camera proved less precise than desirable. The time required to develop the photographs made it challenging for judges to decide a race’s results quickly. Adding multiple cameras did help with catching the first four horses, and other improvements, like ultra-speed cameras and photo-electric controls, continued the evolution through the decade. In 1937, though, racing’s connection to Hollywood brought racing fans the photo finish as we know it.

At Del Mar’s opening day, Lorenzo Del Riccio, an optical engineer for Paramount Pictures, debuted a strip camera. Instead of using a shutter, the camera captures the finish through a .00801-inch slit. A technician would then hit a switch, which triggers the film to start moving at the same speed as the horses. Each horse is recorded by the moving film at the exact time they cross in front of that slit. The images capture a fixed moment in time, showing where the horses are in relation to the other. The addition of a reverse mirror allows horses obscured by another to be seen as well.

Del Riccio’s photo finish concepts are still in use today, but the advent of digital cameras eliminates the need for film and chemical processing for the images. Cameras are triggered by motion sensors and take thousands of frames of the finish line in a second. The final image is then comprised of those frames, catching each horse as they cross the plane. The judges up in their stand can look at the image and determine which horse hit the line first, an asset for those wagering and for the racetracks, ensuring that we know who finishes where as we collect our bets.

Back to that close finish in 1936, would a photo of the finish of the Ascot Gold Cup have agreed with the call that Malcolm Hancock made, or would the image have shown that the Triple Crown winner indeed had gotten the best of Quashed?

Iconic Finishes

From Beholder to Brownie, the photo finish camera has become an integral part of a day at the races. At the sport’s highest levels, it has played a role in the finishes of Breeders’ Cup races, like the 2016 Distaff, where the photo showed Beholder with her nose on the line, the gap between her and Songbird bordering on microscopic. In the 1989 Hambletonian, the camera captured Probe and Park Avenue Joe in a dead heat for that prize, with the latter declared the winner based upon his performance in his qualifying heat. Sometimes the camera must play second fiddle to the rules.

When Bossuet, Brownie, and Wait a Bit hit the wire together, the 1944 Carter Handicap came down to the developed image that showed the finish to be a triple dead heat, an extraordinary image over 75 years later. In addition to capturing a split second in time, the photo finish grabs the imagination, as we contemplate the what-ifs of Beholder versus Songbird and Affirmed versus Alydar and marvel at just how close they all were at the wire.