An actual horse race vs a ZED RUN race. Photo: Courtesy of ZED RUN
All the evidence of the bizarre world we currently find ourselves in is in the purchase some friends and I made in early July—a racehorse named How Deep is Your Love. On the surface, this might not sound out of the ordinary. A surefire way to burn money, yes, but strange? Not really. But How Deep is Your Love is not your regular kind of horse. He doesn’t eat or sleep, and he cannot be ridden or even patted. He is a shade of gold.
How Deep is Your Love is a digital racehorse, the latest in a series of weird digital crazes that seem to brandish the potential for riches to the common man like a Spanish matador waving a red flag to a bull. Digital horse racing combines non-fungible tokens (NFTs), cryptocurrency, and horse racing. Given our syndicate’s collective ignorance in all three, it felt only right to—rather than take them on one at a time—challenge all three to a duel. What could go wrong?
ZED RUN is the Australian-made online platform where it all takes place. It describes itself as “a provably fair digital horse racing game built on blockchain technology.” Trading digital horses, racing them to win prize money, and breeding them to make new ones are all possible in this strange utopia. The game is taking off—there are now over 15,000 stable owners, with some horses selling for an eye-watering $125,000. Comedy duo Hamish and Andy, rapper Ja Rule, and boxer Mike Tyson are among those with a stable, a ZED RUN spokesperson told me. For me, it all started in a pub a few months ago. “You buy and sell the horses, watch them race for prize money,” said a man I had been watching a football match with. “I’ve got about AU$5,000 ($3,675) worth in my stable—here, take a look,” he said, showing me his stable, which was a page featuring around 10 graphics of horses in the colors of the rainbow.
My response was somewhere along the lines of: “Who the fuck would ever want to do that?” Fast forward a few months, a message from my friend Brad, and some excited group chat, and I am the most enthusiastic of a set of friends who have invested AU$2,500 ($1,839) into this weird world. There were lots of questions: Are the horses like Neopets? Do we need to take care of them? The further we plunged into this world, the more questions there were. Cryptocurrency was the first hurdle to clear. The horses themselves are NFTs, unique cryptographic tokens powered by, in this case, Ethereum. The success of Ethereum’s chart, which plunged comically shortly after we invested, is therefore an integral part of making money from the game. Then came the fun bit—buying a horse. There is without a doubt more to consider in buying your first digital horse than there is in buying your first home. Can you afford the exclusive, expensive Nakamoto breed or just the run-of-the-mill Buterin? In terms of color, do we go with Celestial Blue? Maybe a nice shade of Atomic Tangerine? After hours of exploration and several failed bids, we found our noble steed, a genesis (first edition) “Finney” whose silvery gold coat is, for the record, known as “Champagne Papi.”
I wasn’t around at the time of the first moon landing but I can only assume the hype before that event was somewhat similar to the hysteria generated by How Deep is Your Love’s debut race. We didn’t need to train it or prepare it for its big moment—it came to us ready to race.
Our ownership group tuned in on FaceTime with beers from Australia’s far-west and far-east, and North America. Some were in lockdown, some weren’t, all tied together by the excitement of this mysterious galloping JPG of ours, which in reality is no more than a string of numbers sitting on a server somewhere. If the hype generated pre-race was comparable to the moon landing, then the equivalent outcome would have been Apollo 11 rooted to the spot with a flat battery after someone left the lights on overnight. How Deep is Your Love was last out of the gates, staying there most of the way, a late surge bringing him up to seventh (out of 12). The telecast lagged and so the race, which took place on a dark, futuristic racetrack somewhere in the metaverse, unfolded at different stages for everyone watching. After weeks of research and a few thousand dollars investment, it was an incredible anti-climax.
Each race has 12 horses, which you can enter based on your horse’s class (determined by previous performance). The site uses an algorithm that runs 10,000 random outcomes.It reiterated the strengths and flaws of an activity like this. In one sense, it gave us the banter and entertainment we were after, something to think and talk about during a lockdown when there wasn’t much to think or talk about. Racing real horses is an exciting but prohibitively expensive pastime, and this offered us an avenue into a version of that world, without the guilt of animal welfare issues.
Yet it was also one more reason to look at a screen, and another seemingly worthless pocket of knowledge to take up valuable space in our brains, sitting snugly in mine alongside 1990s football stats. The carbon footprint of NFTs is also a serious concern. To buy How Deep is Your Love, I signed off on a series of impressively secure, but energy-intensive transactions on the Ethereum blockchain. Multiply that by the tens of thousands of horses that are currently in ZED RUN and there is cause for alarm. Then there’s the amount of NFTs in general, and you have a serious problem. The platform is one of a few pioneers in the blurring of the physical and digital worlds, in the same manner as esports, but the merits of this are subjective.
How Deep is Your Love continued to race and even became a proud father to two offspring. We’ll probably buy and sell horses for a while, more than likely lose some money, before cutting our losses when Ethereum makes another charge. Our little adventure is best summed up by my friend Joe, a fellow owner that grew up on a wheat farm: “This is a bit of fun, but in 20 years I really hope watching fake horses race isn’t what we’re all doing for fun.” Follow Tim McGlone on Instagram and Twitter.