The Racing Surfaces Testing Lab: Using Science for Safety
Dr. Mick Peterson Dr. Mick Peterson - Executive Director, Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory

William S. Farish: In the quest to improve equine safety, racing surfaces obviously play an important role. This industry has been fortunate to enlist the assistance of Dr. Mick Peterson of the University of Maine.

Mick has been collaborating with the faculty at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine for more than a decade. Over the course of the last five years, he has developed a passion for understanding racing surfaces and he is now working closely with Dr. Wayne McIlwraith (at Colorado State University) with the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory.  In fact, he is taking a sabbatical from his academic duties in 2010 to work on this project full-time.

Mick, welcome to the Round Table and thanks for being here.

Dr. Mick Peterson: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be in front of this group.

I guess one of the questions is:  “How does an engineer end up in front of The Jockey Club on a day like today, especially somebody who went to General Motors Institute and knew more about tractors than about horses a decade ago?”

My post graduate experience was at Yale, Cornell and Northwestern and I was looking at ultrasound and working with engineering materials. When I started at Colorado State, I started looking at bone remodeling studies with Wayne (McIlwraith), Chris Kawcack and some of the veterinarians there.

In 1995, I asked a very naïve question. We were getting started working some horses on a little tiny training track that’s a university training track and they were going to work these horses and I said, “Well, aren’t there some standards we have to satisfy? We have to be able to reproduce this study.”

Now, for an outsider, that was a pretty obvious question. For an insider, it got a lot of blank looks. At that point though, I became involved in an industry I’ve now fallen in love with.

My first objective in this was to find a problem and to fix it. If we looked at racetracks, there was a lot of hearsay and a lot of perception of what the issues were with racing surfaces and I knew enough about biomechanics working with the people I was working with to understand there was one portion of the stride that was probably the most critical and that’s what I set out to reproduce.

That’s the impact when the forelimb hits the track. There’s an impact — a vertical hit — and then there’s a little bit of slide on the hoof.

I built this biomechanical hoof tester to try to test it and that was how I got started in this industry — working especially on the California tracks with support from the American Quarter Horse Association.

To give you an idea of what I found when I first got out there (Fairplex Park in California)…

There was not a problem at the time; at least it wasn’t a problem the way the industry typically finds problems where we are worried about the horses or we see a rash of injuries and somebody gets called in at the last minute.

I was doing a completely academic study with the biomechanical hoof tester and I found an area around the quarter pole — it just wasn’t acting right. I said, “There’s something different here.”

Working with the superintendent there, I then used equipment that had been supported by the Oak Tree Racing Association Charitable Foundation and the Southern California Equine Foundation supported the purchase of ground-penetrating radar. Now this doesn’t sound like typically racetrack maintenance techniques but that’s where I was headed.

I found some variation in the base and some variation in the material with this. If you look at this...again remember there were not injuries at this point, what we found was that I had identified a place on that track where the base had essentially washed out.

What were we going to see?

Soon we were going to begin to see those bowed tendons and sorts of issues that you see when you have a deep racetrack.

The success story here is we did not have those problems. We fixed it. We were able to go in (and) solve the problem before the horses got hurt. That’s the vision that I have come to embrace and there’s a group in the industry that now recognizes that vision.

So where are we?

A few years ago, everybody was going to have synthetic surfaces. The synthetic surfaces are still very promising...that’s the future in a lot of racing venues depending on climate, depending on the budget. There are changes in the synthetic surfaces over time. There are some changes in the synthetic surfaces with temperature. If we water them and maintain them, synthetic surfaces can be terrific.

We are seeing more consistent performance on the synthetic surfaces than we have seen on any dirt surfaces I’ve measured, and part of that is we went in and we replaced these bases.

Dirt tracks are not going to go away. There are some dirt tracks that perform just as well as synthetic tracks and there’s also for many racing venues there’s the money game. It just is not economical to put in a synthetic surface at every racetrack.

They can be consistent. We need to control water — we need a completely new approach to watering racetracks and that’s the challenge with dirt tracks. And when material comes in for a dirt racetrack, we have to treat it like we were treating some exotic material that was coming in for some specialized application. We’re protecting the horses with this material. We need to inspect the stuff that we buy.

To give you an idea of the number of tests that we’re doing, [referring to slide] on the right-hand side of the performance test — this is the biomechanical hoof, this is the ground-penetrating radar; we do this on the track.

On the left-hand side is the number of laboratory tests we’ve looked at that allow us to characterize these surface materials. That way, when we have a track that’s working well this year, two years later when we have a question we can go back and look at it. All of these tests — some of them are standard tests and some of them are ones that we’ve had to develop. That’s the basis for the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory.

In this industry, we need a series of consistent test methods. These methods need to be used throughout the industry, regardless of the surface. Some of them will be performance characteristics and some of them will be how much dirt, how much silt and clay is in a dirt track or how much wax is in a synthetic track.

In the laboratory, we’re developing new methods when needed. We’re using these materials like no one else uses them. We copy the civil engineers; we copy the agricultural people when we can; in some cases horseracing is completely different than anything else. And the most important part from my perspective is we’re creating a database of these results. These are results that we can go back and look at.

Right now, most of our results reside in a filing cabinet in a superintendent’s office and if that superintendent retires or is not organized, we don’t know what happened to the surface.

The other key aspect to this is everything is open to all users. We’ve already sent off protocols that have been used in England and Australia...

The Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory is a single reliable lab to serve the industry. A quick example: Now if you looked at these two sands under a microscope, I don’t think you’d expect the same results. The one on the right performs very differently than the one on the left. In one application, we replaced the material on the left with the one on the right and we didn’t get the same result. Is that surprising?

We also need to be able to go back and look at the material we bought before and see what we get. Microscopy and X-ray diffraction — it’s not been standard in the industry and it’s not particularly expensive.

Everybody has been particularly sensitive to the changes in synthetic surfaces that have shown up. If you look at these, this is gas chromatography again — probably more information than you want — but the low-density components that are on the left-hand side are missing in some of the track surfaces. Again, we get different performances.

We can measure this — we can take the wax out of the surfaces, we can measure this and we can keep track. If we see good performance, those low density materials are tracked off and they evaporate. This is fairly straightforward. This looks like manufacturing engineering. This is the sort of quality control the industry can expect.

But it doesn’t matter. All this is a purely academic exercise. We do not know what a good track is right now. We’ll know a good track when we’ve reduced injuries.

For fatal injuries, we’ve got the InCompass [Equine] Injury Database; for non-fatal injuries, we’ve seen incredible progress in recent years. A high level of non-fatal injuries we’re seeing from this serum bio-marker study the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation has funded [at Colorado State University]. We’re seeing 45 percent injury rates. Now the question is, “How can we correlate those injury rates to track performance, weather, track composition and maintenance?” That’s how we find out what the right track is for an application.

Now the key element of this is broad participation. We talk about a 45 percent non-fatal injury rate, but if we look at a fatal injury rate, it’s still relatively infrequent. So we need enough tracks to participate that we end up with something that we truly can understand. We’re not just reactive.

We also need to meet tracks where they’re at. There are a lot of economic challenges in the industry and there’s a wide range of track maintenance and operational procedures.

I developed what I call the Silver, Gold and Platinum Plan. I won’t discuss the Platinum Plan; you can catch me afterwards if you want to talk about that one. The Silver Plan is, basically, a lot of tracks have a limited budget and I think we can develop maintenance and monitoring processes that everyone can afford.

This is monitoring your weather, documenting you maintenance and doing regular materials testing. All of this material has to go into a central database so you can look back and see what happened last year.

The Gold Plan is logging the weather information into a database in real-time, making that available to the public — there’s certainly some handicapping advantages to that — and then providing the crack a web interface for a track maintenance using a complete maintenance test protocol based on the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory best practices and in situ performance tests. At key points in the meet and at the start of the meet we go ahead and measure and see what the performance is.

Churchill is committed to doing this at their tracks and during the spring meet at Churchill we started it. We were going through Arlington and they’ve committed to moving forward with the Gold Plan for all their tracks.

More complete monitoring has a huge potential for saving money in some cases because we do the work that matters and the work benefits the horse and allows the superintendents to make maintenance decisions based on information on the safety of the surface. And eventually we can develop rules regarding how things are tracked.

The implementation burden on this is significant. The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation has provided initial research grants that developed the front-end work on this. The California tracks and, as I mentioned, Churchill Downs have made a commitment.

Our philosophy is we need more data. The measures need to be based on the safety of the horse. They need to look at the materials in the track. And they need to support research. We need to understand what’s going to benefit the horse; what surfaces are safe? and when are they unsafe?

There are outside influences on these tracks. But we can provide the tool to support this. And as is the case with everything in horse racing, it requires a large number of people, a large number of entities cooperating. There’s a lot of communication that has to happen and that’s been the biggest challenge but also the biggest thrill with this. I think we’re at a good moment right now in the industry.

Thanks a lot.

William S. Farish: Thank you, Mick. This is fascinating work and something that we’re all going to look forward to seeing more and more of your work and the progress you’ve made.

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