Galaxy Z Flip 4 Preorder Quest 2: Still the Best Student Internet Discounts Best 55-Inch TV Galaxy Z Fold 4 Preorder Nintendo Switch OLED Review Foldable iPhone? 41% Off 43-Inch Amazon Fire TV

Kentucky Derby 2016 shows its tech side

From CNET Magazine: Technology helps bring fans closer to the action and the fun for the 142nd running of the race on Saturday at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, KY—May 2, 2015 : American Pharoah with Victor Espinoza on outside making his move to take the lead and win the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs Race Track on May 2, 2015 (Photo by Horsephotos/Getty Images)
Horsephotos/Getty Images

May 7 is Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs.

On the first Saturday in May, Churchill Downs' old-world charm will draw what just might be the nation's most flamboyant sports fans of the year. Think Super Bowl but with sundresses, sky-high hats and stiletto heels for the women; bow ties and pastel seersucker suits for the men.

All 170,000 attendees come here to have a good time. They laugh, they lose money, they get another Old Forester mint julep ("official drink of the Kentucky Derby"). And they scan the crowd for hats and outfits more outlandish than theirs. They find them: a hat that looks like a gilded, 3-foot pacifier. Another that's a giant mint julep, with swizzle stick and straw.

Everywhere there's the smell of cigarettes, cigars, cooked food and, depending whom you stand next to, mint and bourbon.

There are moments you realize the 142-year-old horse race is barely about the horses.

Eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah won last year's derby, with Victor Espinoza at the reins.

American Pharoah, the eventual Triple Crown winner, triumphed at last year's Derby, with Victor Espinoza at the reins.

Horsephotos/Getty Images

Yet no race is more important to Churchill Downs, the Louisville, Kentucky, track famed for its gracious turn-of-the-century buildings, tiered grandstands and iconic twin spires. This is the first jewel of the Triple Crown. (It's followed by the Preakness at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course and the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.) The owner of the winning horse gets a giant gold trophy, a blanket of roses and more than a million dollars. Attendees get to cross the event off their bucket list.

After that, though, most Americans don't give racing a second thought.

Horse racing in general has been on the decline since the late '70s, thanks to shifting demographics, the rise of online betting and too few four-legged stars a la Seabiscuit or Secretariat. Three years ago, Churchill Downs realized that twenty- and thirtysomethings view sporting events through a technology lens. It knew it needed to jazz up the viewing and betting experience with sensors, screens and apps that make it easy to be near the action.

"The party that the Derby was back in 1876 is not the same party that the Derby will be in 2016," says Jeff Koleba, Churchill Downs' head of marketing. "It's critical for us to evolve and make Derby Day the best party and experience possible, and part of that is how people can interact with each other in person and over social media."

Now playing: Watch this: Meet the 16-year-old world drone-racing champion

That's a really big board

In 2013, Churchill Downs teamed with Panasonic to build the aptly named Big Board, one of the largest high-definition video screens in all of sports. Installed midway along the backstretch of the track, the LED screen is larger than three NBA courts and, together with the supports that heft it 80 feet off the ground, weighs more than 1 million pounds.

On Derby Day, it's all about the hats.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The images are so clear they almost look three-dimensional.

Jockey Gary Stevens, 53, who played George Woolf in the 2003 movie "Seabiscuit," says the track initially had to turn down the Big Board's volume because it spooked the horses. And sometimes, race footage would trick the horses into thinking their own race had started.

For sure, the Big Board is impossible to miss. Watching it might be the only time people sitting in the infield -- essentially a patch of muddy grass on the inside of the track -- see a horse all day.

"A few years ago, I only saw [what was around me] at the time," says Ashley Marshall, a 25-year-old third-grade teacher from Louisville, who has been coming to Derby Day for the past eight years.

But with the Big Board she can watch the horses even while sitting on a picnic blanket or partying with friends in the infield. And thanks to sensors stashed in the horses' saddle clothes, the screen also displays graphics showing each horse's progress -- making it easy for the fans to pick out their favorites from the pack.

Your bets, please

Fans wager more than $180 million on Derby Day. Until a few years ago, placing a bet meant heading over to sunless tunnels behind the grandstands, and then lining up at betting counters or self-serve kiosks. That changed last year when Churchill Downs released its official TwinSpires mobile wagering app.

The app gets attendees like Marshall out of the tunnel and back into the light. "It's crazy how much has changed in a few years. People were in line half the time," she says.

Marshall uses the app for making bets but knows her parents and others prefer to stick with tradition. For some, standing in line is just part of the experience. The more superstitious sort will return to the same counter that once sold them a winning ticket.

"A lot of people say our fan base is shrinking," says thoroughbred trainer Kenny McPeek, who trained the 2002 winner of the Belmont Stakes. "I don't think there's any more important time than now to come up with creative ways to attract new young fans."

Party time

Cover of CNET magazine

For more CNET Magazine stories, click here.

Derby Day's main event is one race of 13, each spaced apart by 30 to 50 minutes. In between races, the Big Board shows fans' social media posts, live streams from Millionaires Row or the ultraexclusive Turf Club, advice on wagering, and a stream that just shows hats.

It's a mix of social media, marketing and entertainment that fills the time when fans aren't betting.

"The Derby is so huge, and there are a lot of places you can't get in. I always wondered what they were doing up in Millionaires Row, and now I get to see it," Marshall says.

The bell rings, the metal doors of the starting gate lurch open and 20 powerful thoroughbreds bolt forward and jam themselves along the far rail of the track. It's an intense two minutes of shouting and urging on the favorites. And that's just the fans.

Race over, it's time for one more Old Forester mint julep.

Did you get a look at that hat?

Erin Carson (@ErinCarson) is TechRepublic's multimedia editor in Louisville, Kentucky. She keeps a mint plant expressly for making juleps on Derby Day.

This story appears in the spring 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.