Churchill Downs Bets Big on 4K

The fabled track, home to the Kentucky Derby, is also now home to the largest 4K video board in the world.

Editor’s Note: Last year, one of the biggest days in horse racing featured the largest 4K video board in the world. With this year’s Kentucky Derby set for Saturday afternoon, let’s look back at how Churchill Downs combined the history and pageantry of the first leg of the Triple Crown with modern technology.

The fastest two minutes in sports will be larger, brighter and clearer for the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the new home of the largest 4K video board in the world, a 15,224-square-foot Panasonic structure nicknamed the “Big Board.”

The 171-foot-wide by 90-foot-tall video board sits about 80 feet above the ground across the track’s back stretch, topping out at 170 feet tall, giving fans at almost every angle around the track a clear view of the action, without the need for binoculars. The resolution of the videowall is somewhere in the region of 2,160 x 4,000 pixels.

It’s bigger than:

  • 3 NBA basketball courts,
  • 5 average size U.S. homes
  • 2,200 46-inch flat-screen TVs, and
  • 320,000 Apple iPhone 5 screens

Van Wagner Big Screen Network Productions spent more than a month filming 4K content for the new board, including stables, jockeys and races at Churchill Downs to create what CEO Paul Kalil calls “cinematic opens,” each of which run about 2 minutes before major races at the track. Kalil and the Van Wagner team met Churchill Downs officials at the BCS championship game in early January, one of many major sporting events where Van Wagner has created content over the past several years.

“They really wanted to elevate their production to a world-class level,” says Kalil. “The whole intent is to give the spectators more bang for their entertainment dollar. It adds another dimension to the experience.”

In recent months, the company has been responsible for video content at the Final Four men’s and women’s college basketball championships, Frozen Four college hockey championship, Winter Olympics in Sochi, Super Bowl XLVIII and more. The company has also worked with several NFL teams, including the Washington Redskins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons, and several prominent college football programs, including the University of Notre Dame, the University of Southern California and Utah.

Even before the Derby, “people are talking about the big screen,” says Kalil. “It’s remarkably large, incredibly bright and crystal clear. It’s like sitting in your living room watching television.”

Inside the Installation

Construction of the Big Board started in December and was completed in March, just in time for the Spring Meet, the Kentucky Oaks and the Derby. At about 1.2 million pounds, the board is built to withstand wind speeds up to 90 miles per hour.

Here’s a look at how the idea became a reality:

The multimillion-dollar overhaul also includes a new sound system in the track’s clubhouse, grandstand and infield.

The Big Board can display more than 9 million lines of resolution and allows for image magnification, replays, betting odds and race results, advertising, brand messaging, split screen and ticker displays, public service announcements and many other creative elements. The LED systems were provided by Panasonic‘s premium manufacturing partner, Lighthouse Technologies.

Because the Big Board sits near an underground river, installers had to dig deep enough to bury 12 steel support beams into 45 feet of bedrock. The biggest issue for the Van Wagner team was “just trying to make everything fit together,” says Kalil. The on-site team spent about two weeks before the Derby working 16-plus hours a day creating graphics, presentations and other elements, he says.