This commentary originally appeared on HorseRacing.net on April 6 and is reprinted here with permission.
Could I possibly be the first professional turfwriter to pen a piece that postulates “virtual” digital horse racing will someday eclipse “live” Thoroughbred racing in the real world? And for that matter, in the future could I see myself applying for a position as a digital public handicapper, selecting horses that have names like MileyCyrus2040 and TheHammerSickle17?
Instead of bloodstock editors, in this world I am questioning, we would need code writers who could study how algorithms are constructed when reading a digital horse’s pedigree. No more racetracks, a smiling face at the betting window, or physical camaraderie shortly before the call to the post? Everything continues to move online, and those days of the ubiquitous torn-up tickets scattered on empty communal tables go the way of the dodo.
Where is all this Darkseid-esque dreaming emanating from, you ask? Well, I did recently spend a portion of life watching Justice League, The Snyder Cut. . . but, that’s not it.
Last Friday, the impetus actually came from an event that was scheduled specifically for the afternoon. No, it was decidedly not Opening Day at my favorite racetrack in all the world, Keeneland. In fact, it wasn’t even held in a tangible place in the “real world.” In actuality it was online, in the virtual world, on a website called ZED Run. ZED Run is platform. It is what we call an e-sport. Specifically, it is a virtual horse racing site where you can buy, race, and even breed digital racehorses.
Created a couple years ago by an Australian-based company, it is part of a movement that is sweeping across the internet that directly deals with the creation of assets called NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. In case you do not know, an NFT is something unique that has a specific value in the marketplace that cannot be replicated. They can range from a digital piece of artwork to currency, like bitcoin or ethereum, which can fit on a flash drive or slide virtually into an online wallet. Next-gen stuff indeed. The history of the blockchain, that serves as a ledger constructed of bytes, is relatively youthful. Make no mistake about it, the phenomenon is blazing new trails that defy boundaries, economics, and anything else you could classify as traditional. And that includes an age-old sport like horse racing.
Starting in the mid-afternoon last Friday, some 2,000 digital horses went into the imaginary sales ring on ZED’s website. As they have before, all went like hotcakes. See, there are only 38,000 of these computer-generated “Genesis” animals that exist in the world. There will not be any more after that, except if owners choose to breed a male and a female (and yes, there are colts/fillies/mares/stallions in the platform). It is part of this e-sport, and the creators are banking on NFT self-supporting sustainability.
Once you create an account, which is free, you are able to “fund” it using ethereum (if, your state supports the two mechanisms for deposit), the second most powerful cryptocurrency on the planet. Currently, 1 ETH equates to roughly $3,000.00 plus, and this allows you to enter the auction and pursue the horses that are available for sale.
Watching this event, which occurred in four distinct waves, was like observing a crowd on Black Friday or a scene from The Matrix — frenzied and surging powerfully. In real time, the digital auction block, which included some 2,000 online members spread across the globe, lapped up these NFTs as if their lives depended on it. Days before the auction, after some background research, I was amazed at how seriously members of the ZED Community of owners take this business, and it is just that — a community. There are You Tube videos, several DIY blogs, and a slew of tips on how to maximize the “maintenance” of your digital horse.
Currently, most of the site and the sport is geared towards racing. It is mesmerizing. Go to the main page, and you will see what I am talking about. Designed around a “straight racecourse,” events give the viewer the chance to watch a series of 24/7 races of varying distances, “grades,” and purses. If you own a horse you can pay a fee to “enter” you horse in one of these races and win money. Large fields of runners assemble, and the design reminds one of something futuristic out of the movie The Tron. That is probably because Atari, who is still around, assisted with the overall design.
Speaking of classes, the platform has four major bloodlines that run through the original horses that make up the game. Like Darley, Godolphin, and Byerly Turk, the original three Thoroughbreds, likewise ZED Run has original bloodlines too. Named for famous “crypto” legends, their numbers run from rare to more common, and include: Nakamodo, Szabo, Finney, and Buterin. Breeding fees exist, and with dams able to produce two foals per month, sires have the ability to yield seven in the same time. Thus, a Nakamoto is more difficult to obtain since there are not many of them out of the 38,000, and conversely, a Buterin is pretty much standard.
If you do not want to wait for the next “drop” on the website, then you can go over to a place called OpenSea and look at their stock. This is a popular NFT “eBay” type of place, that has received attention from investors like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who has sung its praises. This is where you can buy almost anything — including ZED digital racehorses. Just like the Saratoga and Keeneland Sales, anything goes with these auctions, and you will see some exorbitant prices.
I am both flabbergasted and slightly unnerved by ZED Run, and the power which it commands. There is also something very exhilarating about watching complexity unfold. Years ago, at places like Dave and Busters and in other old school arcades, you probably saw or even played “horse racing video games.” If you owned a PlayStation or Xbox, you might have enjoyed building a stable, and racing horses within the confines of your own home. But these experiences pale in comparison to what ZED Run is attempting to harness. This feels like something decidedly different. The fact that “money,” whether it is the all-mighty dollar is involved, begs the question of where this all ends up. How does Thoroughbred racing in the real world compete with digital horse racing in the virtual?
We might think this e-sport business is on the fringe, that it could not touch something as expansive and centrally located as international horse racing. But there is a part of that reasoning that is specious, and rather short-sighted. After all, as we speak, gaming companies and their divisions are capitalizing and are in the process of collecting new subscribers. Those lists, like streaming services, have blossomed over this past year. Their ascendancy is not to be taken for granted. If you don’t believe me, look no further than ZED Run. In just minutes, their digital products flew off the shelves because not only are you courting gaming, but the skill of ownership can lead to earning money. Even Thoroughbred racetracks continue to set records when it comes to their handles. They are still plagued with issues that are being massively underestimated by the “industry.” Namely, how do you seize the attention of the next generation of horse owners, players, and workers? Blockchains and NFTs, and their derivatives, appear to have a future, and how the sport responds to their rise will be a central question of the greatest importance.
I am agog by watching the mechanisms built into ZED Run. We saw some “national” digital horse racing events last year under COVID-19, like the “all-time” Kentucky Derby in the U.S., and the Grand National in the U.K. Yet, the look and feel of the ZED website evokes a powerful warning to those who make a living in this business. I shudder to think what this will become in the future. Are we ready to combat its growth, as animal rights, centralization, drug usage, takeouts, and attendance continue to be pressing issues? I am issuing a ZED Run warning — Own? Race? Earn? Sounds pretty inviting to Millennials, who might not be interested in learning to read the latest PPs because their complexity and payoffs are an utter mystery. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Thoroughbred world.
Still, there is an utter sadness in this commentary; I hope I am woefully wrong. The sights and sounds of the racetrack can never be truly replaced by a digital horse racing game. Living virtually does not sound like much of a future to me.
J.N. Campbell is a turfwriter based in Houston.
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