Two University of Arizona students want to make that experience up-close and personal - by virtually putting fans in the saddle with video from the jockeys' point of view.
Kenleigh Hobby and David Matt, students in the UA's Race Track Industry Program, are developing a system to shoot race video with high-definition cameras on jockeys' helmets and deliver it to fans.
The pair share a passion for racing, and a vision to use point-of-view video to help revitalize the lagging industry.
"Horse racing is still stuck in the binocular era," Hobby said. "We want to bring the sport into the 21st century."
The pair tested the concept with a rudimentary system April 30 at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, mounting off-the-shelf sports camcorders on each jockey in several races during a "jockey-cam day."
That video was taken from jockeys by hand and transmitted over track monitors within a few minutes after each race, along with the usual race replays.
Such jockey cams have been used before for special promotions. But Hobby and Matt are trying to develop a jockey-cam system that can wirelessly transmit live, streaming race video and deliver speed and position information via a GPS satellite link.
The ultimate goal: a system to let race fans watch races from the view of the jockey riding their favorite horse - at the track, online or on their smartphones or tablet computers.
December rollout planned
Hobby and Matt have formed a company, EquiSight LLC, and have enlisted the help of the UA College of Engineering to develop a wireless prototype.
The pair plan to showcase the idea in December at the annual Racing and Gaming Symposium hosted by the Racing Industry Program.
They hope to have a prototype of the next-generation wireless setup ready for the College of Engineering's Design Day next May.
Meanwhile, they plan other jockey-cam days to demonstrate the concept. Hobby and Matt were in Virginia on Thursday for a jockey-cam day at Colonial Downs, near Richmond, but races were called off that day due to a local heat wave.
The concept grew out of an idea Hobby and Matt - both seniors on track to graduate next spring - had for their "capstone" project.
The pair hit it off since starting the program together three years ago and finding a shared love for snowboarding as well as racing.
Matt, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana, comes from a horse-racing family that runs a breeding farm and owns two racehorses himself. His father and grandfather were jockeys, and his father is currently a trainer.
Hobby said he fell in love with the Sport of Kings as an adolescent when his family moved to Del Mar, Calif., home of one of the nation's biggest racetracks.
He's also got some entrepreneurial chops. An avid snowboarder, Hobby founded SnowVisual.com, which offers satellite images of ski resorts, in Vail, Colo. in 2005, and he had previously started an online travel agency for scuba divers.
Interest in racing lagging
Researching issues facing racing, the pair found one overarching problem.
""We feel that the public interest in the sport has eroded because the younger generation is sort of out of touch with the sport," Hobby said.
They noted that other major sports - including auto racing, Major League Baseball and the National Football League - are heavily invested in new technology, including NASCAR's cockpit cameras and live audio feeds.
Hobby and Matt's idea was to develop a system that allows fans, as their company motto says, to "ride the race."
After testing a basic demonstration system using off-the-shelf videocams, the pair got approvals from the state Racing Commission and Turf Paradise for the April demo.
The pair outfitted all the jockeys in three races with cams and rushed the recordings onto the track's video system.
Vincent Francia, general manager of Turf Paradise and former general manager of Rillito Downs in Tucson, said he got nothing but positive feedback about the jockey-cam day.
"When a race goes on, there's a separation between the race and the fan," Francia said. "Here, you're actually going to put the fan in that race."
Hurdles lie ahead
Facing stiff competition from other forms of gambling, including Indian casinos and online betting, horse racing could use a shot in the arm. Wagering on thoroughbred races has fallen more than 60 percent since the mid-1990s, including steep decreases in each of the last three years, industry statistics show.
Francia said the jockey-cam idea, if fully developed, may be just what the sport needs to reconnect with its fans and attract new ones.
"To me, it has an enormous potential to increase race handles," he said, using the term for a track's total wagering.
Doug Reed, director of the UA's Race Track Industry program, said improving race video could fuel fan growth by creating a more intimate, interactive experience.
But it's one thing to have a great idea, quite another to develop a viable company and product.
Hobby and Matt acknowledge their concept faces a steeplechase of obstacles, including the technological challenge of creating a high-quality wireless video system that can handle huge video files and link up with existing technology including simulcasting and possibly smartphone applications.
"We'll have to develop an entire infrastructure," Hobby said, adding that the pair filed for a provisional U.S. patent for the video concept.
The company will also have to develop a business model, which could derive revenues from racetracks or licensing fees from simulcasting or online betting sites - though Arizona is one of a handful of states with pari-mutuel wagering that don't allow online wagering.
Affordability a key
All that will take money, so EquiSight is soliciting both donations and investments. The company has joined the Arizona Center for Innovation, a high-tech-business incubator at the UA Science and Technology Park that offers office space, mentoring and help with marketing and investors.
Turf Paradise's Francia said whatever Hobby and Matt come up with, it has to be affordable.
Hobby and Matt said it's too early to tell what a fully integrated system will cost. The off-the-shelf GoPro HD sports cameras EquiSight is testing retail for about $250 to $300 alone.
Matt - whose back-side connections have helped open doors already - said nobody's turned the pair down yet as they've sought to demonstrate their concept.
"They see our enthusiasm," Matt said. "We've been involved in the sport. We're not in it just to make a dollar. We really want to improve the industry."