Horse-racing as a sport started in 1665, when the first-ever racetrack was Long Island. However, while it remains a popular local sport for some time, organized racing did not exist until after the Civil War in 1868. Almost two centuries later, the sport has now become virtual, in the booming era of NFTs. In a crossover in what we can describe as an advanced version of an Animal Crossing or videogame fantasy of crypto-enthusiasts, digital horse racing is booming – with the horses being NFTs. What is an NFT? At this point, the question is – what isn’t an NFT? From digital music, to movies, to TikToks, to articles, to tweets to artwork, and even memes – are now non-fungible tokens. Elon Musk may have opted out of the ongoing NFT gold rush, after he initially made an NFT on a techno song about NFTs – and then decided to not sell it, but everyone else seems to be rushing to join in. The first NFT artwork to be auctioned was by Christie’s. The first Oscar-nominated movie to be released as an NFT was Adam Benzine’s “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah.” The first tweet by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey was sold as an NFT. The first NFT album was ‘Kings of Leon’s ‘When You See Yourself.’ After art and auction houses, (and billionaires) news organizations and galleries also seem to be joining in on the trend. Quartz has converted an article into an NFT, a digital asset that essentially serves as its own certificate of ownership and authenticity. They’re, however, not the first. Associated Press sold its non-fungible token artwork on March 11 for a hefty sum only eight days putting it up for auction. The artwork, titled “The Associated Press calls the 2020 Presidential Election on Blockchain – A View from Outer Space,” sold for roughly 100 ETH (+3.79%) ($180,000), according to data from NFT marketplace OpenSea.
NFTs are not physical assets but digital properties that exist in the blockchain. An NFT essentially symbolises ownership of a certain physical item. Since it’s stored in the blockchain, it is transparent and thus cannot be copied or stolen. James Murphy, CEO of Future Fallout, writes that ‘just like a concert ticket symbolises the ownership of the space of a seat in the concert arena, and a Bitcoin represents the underlying value of the digital currency in physical currency, an NFT symbolises the ownership of an item that has been digitised.’
For the new era of digital horse racing, a platform called ‘On Zed Run’, horse racing events take place every hour, seven days a week. Owners pay modest entry fees — usually between $2 and $15 — to run their steeds against others for prize money, reports The New York Times. The horses in these online races are NFTs meaning they exist only as digital assets. You can’t pet them or feed them carrots by hand. You can’t sit in the stands while they sprint by. But, unlike the vast majority of NFTs — which correspond to GIFs, images and videos that can be kept as collectables or sold for profit — each digital horse constitutes what Zed Run’s creators call a “breathing NFT.”
“A breathing NFT is one that has its own unique DNA,” Roman Tirone, the head of partnerships at Virtually Human, the Australian studio that created Zed Run told NYT. “It can breed, has a bloodline, has a life of its own. It races, it has genes it passes on, and it lives on an algorithm so no two horses are the same.”
People — most of the crypto enthusiasts — are rushing to snap up the digital horses, which arrive on Zed Run’s site as limited-edition drops; some of them have fetched higher sums than living steeds. One player sold a stable full of digital racehorses for $252,000. Another got $125,000 for a single racehorse. So far, more than 11,000 digital horses have been sold on the platform. Some even have their children joining in.
Alex Taub, a tech startup founder in Miami, has purchased 48 horses – and his stable is still growing. He recently bred a digital horse for his 5-year-old daughter.
“She comes home from school and wants to race it,” he tells NYT. “She named her horse Gemstone, and Gemstone had two babies named Rainbows and Sparkles.”
Each race has a 12-horse limit, the lineups of which are based on the qualities and past performance of each horse. The site uses an algorithm that runs 10,000 random outcomes and chooses one as the race’s condition. The races take place around the clock and are streamed on both Zed Run’s Twitch channel and the company’s website. Zed Run also operates a Discord server, where people can follow race results, trade tips and share third-party tools for analyzing data. Users Livestream their own races and repackage clips for YouTube and Twitch.
Zed Run was founded in 2018 by Chris Laurent, Rob Salha, Geoff Wellman and Chris Ebeling. They felt that horse racing was fertile ground for innovation.
“It’s one of the world’s oldest sports, and it has remained unchanged since the dawn of time,” Laurent said.
Renee Russo, a 25-year-old entrepreneur in New York, said racing her digital horse, Glacial Planes, feels more like playing a video game than taking a gamble.
“I own this horse. I’m not betting on another horse,” she said, “so I feel like I have complete control of where it’s going, who it’s racing and who I want to breed it with.”
As with all investments, there is reason for caution here. Should Zed Run turn out to be a fad, these digital horses could be rendered worthless. Fans of digital horse racing often talk about the “metaverse,” a shared space where physical and virtual reality meet.
“My opinion is that Zed Run will be the first digital sport of the metaverse,” Greenfeld said. “People are going to root for horses and stables, and become fans. There are horses that are already celebrities in the ecosystem. It’s global, there’s no language barriers and it’s 24/7. It takes the best of crypto, NFTs, esports, streaming.”