Circuits on the Circuit

Humans nowadays put their faith in computers and machines on a daily basis, whether it be someone relying on a coffee machine for their daily caffeine fix, or an individual depending upon a respirator to keep them breathing for that little while longer. As we continue to advance through the centuries, it seems as if scientists and engineers are constantly coming up with new inventions to make our lives easier, saving us both time and money. One aspect of society that doesn’t seem to have been influenced in quite the same way is sport (and no, before you ask, Robot Wars doesn’t count). Despite being perhaps one of the largest commercial markets in the world, something that everyone can get involved in and excited about, it still remains very much a human activity.

The exception however can be found in the Middle East, where camel racing is being taken over by soulless, metallic-faced jockeys. Although originally introduced as a result of a ban on child jockeys, these robotic creatures have grown in usage and popularity amongst the camel-racing community. And this leads to an interesting question: why has such an idea not been bandied about in the United Kingdom? And, perhaps more importantly, is it likely that the image of a human jockey, full of blood and bones will one day be replaced by a robotic one filled with circuits and microchips?

In many ways, sport (horse racing included) is now as much about the profit and turnover that success creates as it is about the actual trophies and titles that are won. Compared with a lot of sports across Great Britain, horse racing does not have the attraction of multi-million-pound contracts and endorsements enjoyed by top footballers and tennis players: Ferraris are swapped for Land Rovers, designer trainers for welly boots. After the expenses of travel, accommodation (for both human and horse), entry costs and jockeys’ fees are all taken into account, the profit left for trainers and owners is decidedly more League 2 than Premier League. Running a stable is not a cheap exercise by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it the most glamorous. Saving money and maximising profit is an important part of the task, especially when there is no guarantee of where the next pay cheque is coming from.  In a business where costs can easily outweigh revenue, it’s amazing to think that the idea of robot jockeys, where jockeys’ fees would become non-existent, hasn’t been trialled by a few brave trainers. With these machines costing as little as £3,000, it would be a worthwhile investment for any trainer looking to save a few extra pennies.

Financial gains however are not the only advantage of such a contraption. Hark back to the 2012 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Newmarket. The race was of course won by a certain Black Caviar (her 22nd consecutive victory), but not quite in the manner that everyone had expected. Rather than blitzing the opposition and cantering to a comfortable victory, she almost lost it due to the mistake of her jockey, Luke Nolen, who eased back on the reins before having to perform a rather frantic recovery, crossing the line mere inches ahead of Moonlight Cloud. Nolen himself has admitted over-confidence as one of the factors for such a close race. But with robot jockeys, a miscalculation of that order would never happen again. Their computer chips wouldn’t have capacity for emotions like cockiness or over-confidence: they would just go out there and do what they’re told by whoever programmed them, without ever risking a victory because they thought they were ‘comfortably ahead’. This of course does have its downsides. Sometimes a jockey needs to pull a horse up if they or the animal are injured to avoid any further risks to the long-term wellbeing of either horse or rider. Is this a risk that owners would seriously be willing to take? Saving a few thousand pounds on jockeys’ fees only for their star thoroughbred to spend the next few months in the stable, doesn’t really seem worth it, does it? Although horse-racing is often seen as a sport for gamblers, perhaps this would be a step too far for those involved.

Furthermore there is the argument put forward by many that the sport is called horse racing for a reason, not horse and jockey racing. These are the same people who cry into their cup-a-soups that all cars in Formula 1 should be made totally equal so that it really is a Championship for the best driver and not the best design team. And while they do indeed have a point, I can’t help but disagree. A good jockey can potentially galvanise a poor horse into running beyond its capability. Horse racing is one of the few sports in the world where man and beast combine together to work in perfect harmony – well, that’s the plan at least. Without the jockey, horse racing would become just a larger, more glorified version of greyhound racing. Maybe they could swap the hare for a moving bag of carrots and apples.

The main issue with the introduction of robotic jockeys would be the inevitable loss of many of the personalities that make this sport so loved. Yes the horses are the stars of the show but, nine times out of ten, their post-race interviews aren’t going to be quite as interesting and definitely harder to understand. Maybe horse-whisperers could find a new form of employment. Horse racing is already at a disadvantage due to its lack of instantly recognisable faces when compared to the likes of football, rugby or tennis. Getting rid of some of the few people that the general public can actually understand and relate to would be suicidal for the sport.

Moreover, if my mum’s car is anything to go by, mechanical devices aren’t always the most reliable of items. While a jockey can walk away from a fall with a few bruised ribs and a dent in their ego, a robot may take a slightly worse knock. Rather than just needing a little rest and recuperation, a robotic rider would probably need a mechanic of its own as I can’t imagine many trainers are particularly adept at rewiring a circuit. This then would negate the point of dropping a jockey to save money on fees if you’re just going to have to pay that money to the local handyman. There is also the possibility of sabotage of the robots (although it would be nice to think that this would be highly unlikely). Technically though, what would stop a sneaky Bond villain sidekick from sticking a literal spanner in the works of the robot and thus rendering it as just a dead weight?

Despite all of this however, the reason sport is so popular is its human element. It is this element which makes anything possible. And it is this reason that we tune in every week in our millions. If I wanted a sporting contest to be decided by computer algorithms and computer chips then I’d watch virtual horseracing (yes, sadly such a thing does exist). It’s a telling fact then that such a concept hasn’t taken off. We, as a society, want to see man and beast together in the flesh, not machine and beast.  The introduction of these contraptions would not only leave the jockeys without a personality, but also the sport itself. Can you see a robot performing Frankie Dettori’s iconic flying dismount? I certainly can’t.

Image credit: Roger Blake

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