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A Madden designer makes a big bet on the Kentucky Derby with his latest game

The tradition, the pageantry ... the studs ....

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

In the 142nd Kentucky Derby, post time in three-and-a-half hours, the favorite is Nyquist at 2-to-1. Next best is Exaggerator at 5-to-1, and the darkhorse is Mohaymen, 12-to-1. Ian Cummings' big bet is that a bunch of people will wonder, "Hey, isn't there a video game for this?"

There is. It's called Photo Finish Horse Racing, and Cummings, the former creative director of the Madden NFL franchise, makes it. He and two colleagues busted their asses to get an all-new version of the game, for iOS and Android, ready by this weekend, when interest in thoroughbred horse racing in the United States peaks.

"It's still popular, it's still a real thing," Cummings said of horse racing, which on three Saturdays in May and June commands worldwide attention before receding to a niche audience. "In the 1960s it was the No. 1 sport and still in a lot of countries it's their No. 1 sport.

"More importantly, it's something that can support a small team, while also being out of the target radar of the EAs and the Zyngas of the world," Cummings said.

Electronic Arts and Zynga are two of Cummings' previous employers, as he has pursued a second act since designing North America's most visible sports video game franchise for three years, after a decade with EA Sports. The name of the one-man studio he founded, Third Time, llc, is an homage to his life after EA.

Cummings admits he wasn't much of a horse racing fan before getting started on Photo Finish Horse Racing, which originally published late last summer under another name, Derby King, which he built from scratch himself before his last employer, the daily fantasy site FanDuel, closed an Orlando office also filled with EA Sports expatriates.

"I had my eyes on a tennis game," another sport Cummings doesn't play, "as something I thought I could get done very simply. But I had some concerns with the animations. The horse racing, I happened to find a few free assets, like a horse running, animated."

From that basic structure Cummings built the rest of Photo Finish Horse Racing's first iteration by himself, in the Unity engine. In the game, a player creates and names a horse, trains it up, races it and earns money that funnels back into the training and breeding operation. While the overall aesthetic is a management simulation, there is some action to keep a user invested in the races, most of which last about 30 to 40 seconds. The goal, however, is to field a stable of winners as a big-time, big-shot horse owner, more than steer them, switch leads, move to the rail and other tactical decisions as a jockey. Or as a horse.

Let's face it. Horse racing and track events are older than most sports played in video games these days, and they haven't caught on there for the same reasons. While both feature superlative individuals and celebrate very long traditions, they offer little interactivity or intrigue — run in this direction, as hard as you can, for a short time. For most gamers, that would mean pressing a button or, maybe, stick-clicking and holding in one direction for two minutes,

Still, last year, Cummings scratched together something and showed it to friends. "I put the horse on the track and it had a whip mechanic and I asked, 'Does this have any legs?'" Well, yeah. Four, in fact. "I searched the App Store and found nothing for horse racing. It's total garbage.

"I was just, like, I just wanted to do a sport rather than some weird niche idea," Cummings said. "If I make the next Flappy Bird, even if it's good, how does anyone know to find it? But people search for tennis, people search for boxing. Will people search for horse racing?"

"This is like an NFL combine of watching horses run"

They have and do, apparently. Photo Finish Horse Racing hovered around 1,000 installations for much of April. Last week, that figure tripled, no doubt because this is the time people are thinking of the sport. It helps also that Photo Finish Horse Racing just pumped out a huge update and acquired a publisher, Tilting Point, adding heft to the overall product.

More importantly, Cummings drafted two old colleagues from the EA Tiburon studio, Brian Fleming and Paul Fleetwood, and convinced them to put their muscle into the project. Those two turned Photo Finish Horse Racing from Cummings' bobber-in-the-water last year into something with a real hook, with visuals, presentation and gameplay that bespeak a serious endeavor, not the pet project of a lone developer. But it took some convincing.

Cummings pleaded with Fleming and Fleetwood to visit the Ocala Breeders' Sales track with him, next door to where they all live in central Florida, and see the potential of horse racing as a video game. They booked a tour and rode around the grounds on a golf cart, saw guys "from every country, holding stopwatches and clipboards, wearing tracksuits and shit.

"We realized this is a huge, massive industry right off the beaten path. This is like an NFL combine of watching horses run," said Cummings, the former Madden designer snickering at the irony of it all. "We immediately went back and decided we had to change the breeding part of the game, where you end up with a foal that you have to train, and take care of and raise."

Photo Finish Horse Racing isn't licensed, like Madden NFL, and it isn't poised to be the next 'Ville in a graveyard full of Facebook flameouts. It is, however, lurking at the top of the stretch in mobile gaming's two biggest stores, well placed to catch on if people see a thrilling finish at Churchill Downs and search out a way to indulge that experience. And if the Derby winner picks up a Preakness title in two weeks, Cummings thinks he'll cash in.

Cummings thinks Photo Finish can catch a wave with casually interested horse racing fans who are alienated from the intimidating and bizarre appeals the thoroughbred sport makes to its everyday audience. "Horse racing has turned off a lot of fans because of the way they approach it," Cummings said. "The only draw is betting, and it's out of control and hard to understand. If you go in and you're sort of only mildly interested in the horses, it's incomprehensible. It's still a very exciting sport, especially in person, but they've not really done the service of bringing in new customers, or young people."

"It used to be the family friendly thing back in the 1960s, these races," Cummings said. "Now, like, it's scary. It's like going to the dog track almost."

A comfortable introduction, to a sport of beautiful creatures (Photo Finish includes a swooning cutscene of dam and sire running at sunset with the, uh, actual breeding happening off camera) and the charm of being invested in the sport without putting money on it is what Cummings and his partners are going for. They're hoping that Triple Crown season delivers a huge payout, too.

"You know, Nyquist ran down here in Florida, and the other horse he was racing against, Mohaymen, those two were undefeated leading into the Florida Derby," Cummings said. Nyquist won. "If Nyquist pulls off another Triple Crown, that would be gravy for us."

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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