The narrowest of margins separated Steel Prince and Surprise Baby in the 2019 Andrew Ramsden Stakes, but a photo finish was able to determine the winner. (Racing Victoria)

The narrowest of margins separated Steel Prince and Surprise Baby in the 2019 Andrew Ramsden Stakes, but a photo finish was able to determine the winner. (Racing Victoria)

Picture perfect

BY MICHAEL LYNCH 

A thundering finish, horses driving for the line, sinews stretched, nostrils flared, muscles strained to the maximum.

Jockeys almost horizontal over their mount’s neck, pushing, encouraging, whirling the whip in rhythm with their partner’s stride to galvanise them to the supreme effort.

Two, perhaps three, flash past the post, a whir of colour and movement, centimetres, perhaps even smaller fractions, separating them as they hurtle over the line in a blur of uncertainty.

How on earth could you tell who had won with cast-iron conviction?

The eye plays tricks. The brain sometimes sees what it wants to see. The angle can be deceptive, the light can distort.

Brave would be the judge who would, with complete certitude, call the result without a second thought.

Imagine the outcry that would ensue.

That’s how things might still be but for the invention of the photo-finish camera.

We regard it as an indispensable, even unremarkable, piece of equipment nowadays; just a part of the race day set up, like the scales in the weighing room or the stewards watching from on high in their tower, the broadcaster interviewing connections or replaying the race.

But when the first photo-finish cameras came in they revolutionised racing and betting: no longer would there be so many incorrect judge’s calls, so many strange results, so many genuine, honest mistakes.

With an array of digital technology now available such errors are increasingly rare.

Before the American development of reliable photo-finish cameras, a judge was the arbiter, a man who stood at the finish line and determined in the tightest of finishes which horse had won.

The first photo-finish equipment, while revolutionary at the time, was unsophisticated, activated by a thin wire placed across the track which when tripped set off a series of mounted cameras.

The technology was slow to be adapted in Australia with the first photo finish introduced at Flemington in 1946. One didn’t happen in a Melbourne Cup until 1948, when the longshot Rimfire won by a whisker from Dark Marne, setting a race record time in the hands of 15-year-old apprentice rider Ray Neville.

Astonishingly, Neville had ridden only one previous winner in his short career.

Fast forward to today and things have changed, but in some ways not all that much, as Racing Victoria’s Photo Finish operator at Flemington Darren Allsop, who has been doing the job for 12 years, explains.

“Athol Shmith and Bert Pearl virtually invented it when, in the late 1940s, they established a company called Amalgamated Photo Finish.”

“Athol was more of a fashion photographer, and was assisted by Don Hancock, who started his career as a photo-finish operator with Shmith. The concept is basically the same today as it was then.”

“They tested it at Flemington in 1946, then did it at the trots and greyhounds too.”

Shmith describes in his biography the amusing and unorthodox way that he and Pearl first tested it at Flemington. “They built a tower 55-feet high on the winning line. The first test we did at Flemington, I’ll never forget it. Bert was upstairs because I don’t like heights, and I’m downstairs in my darkroom, which was the vice regal lavatory. It had a Royal Doulton loo – beautiful willow pattern on it, I might add.” So Bert was up there, still using the five-inch film and the gramophone. And then, after the horses had passed the post he threw himself under a black cloth to keep the daylight out, took the film out, put it in a cylinder he’d had made up, gave it to me and I rushed to the vice-regal lavatory, five seconds in the developer, two seconds in the fixer, put it in the loo, pull the chain and wash it. Then I came out and signalled to Bert, ‘She’s okay’.”

While the principle might be the same as that pioneered in the 1880s and tested in 1946 by Shmith and Pearl, the technology is rapidly updating.

“Each year, the cameras are getting better and better,” says Allsop.

“Digital used to have a resolution of 680, now it is 1300. The frame rates are 6000 frames per second, and when I started it was 2000. It means we can get more accuracy and greater detail. The line scan just takes a vertical scale picture, constantly repeated as the horses move through, each picture a fraction after the other and then the computer builds the picture up after it lines it all up on the screen.”

It’s not, as some might think, just a question of pointing and shooting. He and his colleagues have to take in variables such as distance from the line, the light and prevailing weather and the position of the running rail.

“I had to learn all about focus, balances, apertures and the technical side of the game. They taught me how to focus in lower light and work in different visibility conditions. We set the focus, depending on how far away we are from the line.”

The narrowest of margins separated Steel Prince and Surprise Baby in the 2019 Andrew Ramsden Stakes.

“At Flemington on Anzac Day we had 105 millimetre lenses operating at 3000 frames per second. We operate at all 57 tracks in Victoria. We set up at every track, then take them down.”

Even with such an array of equipment sometimes it’s just not possible to separate runners.

“Even though the technology is much better, we still have dead heats. The camera photographs the whole field, going from first to last. It measures all the distances as the judge determines the placings and all of that information goes into the form guide.”

Allsop was protege to Terry Fraumano who was in the chair for that closest of all Melbourne Cup finishes, when Dunaden nosed out Red Cadeaux by what many dubbed “a pixel”. But he has seen his own share of close calls.

“Now every track in Victoria has a photo finish. Five years ago, that wasn’t the case, places like Tambo, Dederang and Buchan didn’t.”

“At Dederang we have to run it off a generator ... they come and fill it up with petrol after race three, but we will have a working photo finish for the meeting.”

DID YOU KNOW?

Athol Shmith, co-creator of the photo-finish camera, was better known as a portrait, fashion and advertising photographer. With a career spanning 60 years, he played a crucial role in documenting and shaping Melbourne style in that era.

As finding models to work with in the 1930s was not easy, Shmith recruited suitable young women from Melbourne’s most prominent families to pose for him. This connection to high society gave fashion photography an air of respectability, and by the 1940s, the model and photographer professions were firmly established.

He became Melbourne’s leading fashion photographer, and spearheaded the ‘modern look’: clean and bold lines, combined with Hollywood Glamour.

Athol Shmith, co-creator of the photo-finish camera, was better known as a portrait, fashion and advertising photographer. With a career spanning 60 years, he played a crucial role in documenting and shaping Melbourne style in that era.

As finding models to work with in the 1930s was not easy, Shmith recruited suitable young women from Melbourne’s most prominent families to pose for him. This connection to high society gave fashion photography an air of respectability, and by the 1940s, the model and photographer professions were firmly established.

He became Melbourne’s leading fashion photographer, and spearheaded the ‘modern look’: clean and bold lines, combined with Hollywood Glamour.