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Working With HISA, Racing Surface Testing Makes Strides

Top Priority: Better data through HISA accelerates improvements to racing surfaces.

Dr. Mick Peterson of the Racing Surface Testing Laboratory

Dr. Mick Peterson of the Racing Surface Testing Laboratory

Anne M. Eberhardt

When a catastrophic injury occurs at the racetrack, often the first topic raised is the safety of the racing surface. 

Over time, some of the most efficient work and quickest improvements in equine safety have taken place in the arena of surface testing and consistency while at the same time factors such as medication, veterinary practices, and pre-existing conditions have come to the fore as additional areas in need of attention.

The progress on racing surfaces is due in large part to the Racing Surface Testing Laboratory, whose work grew out of the first Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit held in 2006 at Keeneland. Among the breakout groups at that event were committees on injury reporting, education, shoeing and hoof care, and racing surfaces. 

The mastermind behind the RSTL, an energetic mechanical engineer who had worked with General Motors and on NASA's space shuttle program, embraced the challenge of making racetracks safer for 1,200-pound equine athletes carrying riders at 40 mph over those surfaces. Dr. Mick Peterson, as much as any other person, is responsible for making Thoroughbred racing safer by not only pointing the way toward improving track surfaces and the bases beneath them, but often times by eliminating surfaces as the causation factor of injuries so that attention can be focused elsewhere to root out potential problems.

From his then-headquarters at the University of Maine, Peterson developed the Orono (the town in which that university is located) Biomechanical Surface Tester to reproduce the speed and loads of a horse's front limb at the gallop in an effort to measure the track. In response to any soft spots he found while analyzing racetracks, he also obtained a ground-penetrating antenna that could measure the base underneath the surface.

Peterson developed a three-prong approach to maintaining a quality surface: design, pre-meet inspection, and daily testing on race days. He signed up a half-dozen racetracks for the full protocol, and another half-dozen that brought him in to do most of that testing.

Santa Anita Park's track consultant Dennis Moore alongside CHRB and track officials this morning with the Orono Biomechanical Surface Tester, a device that mimics a horse's gallop
Photo: Zoe Metz
The Orono Biomechanical Surface Tester is being used at Santa Anita Park

The passage of legislation in 2022 that put the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority in charge of overseeing safety protocols was a game changer for Peterson and the six full-time and four part-time staffers that work with him. 

"Essentially, those three phases are now requirements under HISA racetrack regulations," Peterson noted. "In 2021, we did pre-meet inspections at 20 racetracks. In 2023, we did 70 visits to more than 50 racetracks. Places like Parx (Racing), we go twice a year because they crank away in winter and summer. 

"Penn Entertainment has been fantastic. Texas under Chris McErlean went from zero to 100 mph. Arapahoe Downs isn't a place where we spent a lot of time in the past, but we're there now. We're Switzerland on this. Politics is out the window for us. Nobody wants these tracks to be inconsistent, and doing the same procedures over a larger number of racetracks fits the long-term objective of consistency."

Through financial support from The Jockey Club, HISA covers the costs of pre-meet inspections. If major tracks such as Keeneland, the New York Racing Association tracks, or Del Mar want more done, they pay for any additional work. Today, smaller venues in Louisiana and Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort in West Virginia are the only racetracks not tested by Peterson's team. 

In addition to the on-location inspections, material from each racetrack is sent back to the labs, where additional testing is performed

Strength in numbers has helped propel consistency forward. The RSTL tests synthetic and grass surfaces as well as dirt ones, and is able today to collect valuable data over a wider range of courses. The relationship with HISA has significantly added to the available information the RSTL can use to identify any problems and craft solutions.

"We've been doing synthetics for a long time, but we have never had full participation," Peterson said. "That's where HISA has been huge. We're able to get a much better data set today than we ever have on the synthetics. We've done Woodbine from the get-go, but now we're doing the same things for Presque Isle and Golden Gate and Turfway.

"With turf, it's the same thing. Take Churchill Downs, for example. As it has struggled the past few years, the strength of HISA is an advantage. Before, we could ask what was different now at Churchill compared to the old turf course there. Now we can say, 'Here's what's different about Churchill compared to the 30 other turf courses we test.' Moving forward, we can make these comparisons, and see if there is a reason one is getting different results. If you're an outlier and you're having problems, the first thing is to copy everybody else."

Peterson believes that racetracks in the same region should be able to maintain consistency with one another, which helps minimize the adjustments needed to be made by horses traveling between venues. 

"Different locations may have slightly different atmospheric factors, but there should not be any light that separates, for example, Del Mar and Santa Anita," maintained Peterson. "Slightly different climate, but basically the same materials. And I'd say the same thing about Laurel, Parx, and Delaware (Park). 

"It should be as simple as buying the same sand to put on their tracks. Ellis Park, Keeneland, and Churchill Downs are talking about sourcing sand together. It's ridiculously difficult to find consistent sand sources. So, that's how to fix it: Find a source that everybody uses. And that goes for the training centers as well. Everyone has an interest in matching and making it as consistent as possible."

Tracks under HISA in 2023 reported the lowest rate of breakdowns, 1.23 per 1,000 starts, for any North American season in the 15 years this data has been recorded. Tracks not under HISA oversight, including in the aforementioned Louisiana and West Virginia, saw a 32.5% higher rate of these incidents in 2023.

While Thoroughbred racing fatalities have been trending downward since the launch of The Jockey Club Equine Injury Database in 2009, individual racetracks continue to experience clusters of breakdowns. Invariably, fingers are first pointed at the racing surface. When asked how often it actually is the surface causing the problem, Peterson said there was no hard percentage while acknowledging improvements can be made in all areas.

leaves, falling on track<br>
Breeders’ Cup horses at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. on November 1, 2020.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
The racing surface at Keeneland

"It is almost never one thing," he said. "But here's an example of how to move forward: Aqueduct had a breakdown cluster in 2012—a classic cluster. And if a cluster could ever be attributed to one thing, that was the one you could connect the dots on. Purses exploded for claimers, and the horses broke down. They dropped the purses, put in different purse-to-claiming-price rules, and the cluster went away.

"But Glen Kozak (NYRA executive vice president, operations and capital projects) took that as an opportunity to implement new things. Purses might have caused that cluster, but the next one might entail surfaces as a bigger factor, so he encouraged work in that area. There are gains to be made with surfaces, and in other areas. And that's important, because the public will not accept the status quo. When you find something, you change veterinary procedures, you change oversight, you employ diagnostic testing, you work on surfaces. You have to make progress on every front.

"Sometimes the surfaces get blamed first without cause, and sometimes they may be to blame. There are only a few things that affect every horse on the track: pre-race examinations and monitoring training affect every horse, and also could cause the trainer to pay better attention. Surfaces fall into that same bucket as racetrack veterinary procedures. It's good for everybody if we improve all of that."

While Peterson feels that pre-meet inspections are invaluable in identifying potential problems, he identifies a few areas that will further improve safety heading into the future. One area is better surveying of racetracks because, especially at smaller venues, grading is a major issue. Advancements in technology will also play a part in better and quicker identification of potential problems.

"What I want is real-time monitoring equipment, which a couple of entities are working on independently," he said. "We need to be able to measure moisture and cushion depths in real time. At Woodbine, they had $25,000 claimers setting track records because the material was wearing down. That's not good. But that's where real-time monitoring of the track condition will pay off.

"We're just now pilot-testing a new piece of equipment that you can carry around and that allows you to walk the track once a day and do the surface/cushion testing.

"The other big issue is figuring out how to run more races on the turf. Turf racing is a bright spot. It is where the handle is, the interest is, and the field size is. We're putting a lot of research into that. We're looking at modifying divot mix. We have a PhD dissertation looking into that."

That reference to academia comes from Peterson's other job—director of the University of Kentucky's Ag Equine Programs. The equine science and management undergraduate program, established 17 years ago, is now the largest major in the College of Agriculture. And several of Peterson's graduate students are doing research for their PhDs directly related to racetrack safety.

"It's an exciting and interesting time here," Peterson said by way of greeting. And, a better time for equine safety.