Bobby Zen

Tuesday’s Jockey Club Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit identified seven “opportunities” for the industry to make to make a wholesale leap forward in equine safety and welfare standards. One of the seven was improved surface maintenance protocols. The better these protocols, the safer the track.

Part of the universe of data disseminated throughout the summit was a breakdown of dirt surfaces into four climate groups. Researchers found the safest dirt tracks in hot dry climates (with an average 1.31 fatality rate per 1,000 starts). The dirt surfaces in climates with hot summers and cold, freezing winters had the worst equine fatality rates (1.53 fatalities per 1,000 starts).

One of Tuesday’s speakers was Michael “Mick” Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory (RSTL) and professor of Biosystems & Agricultural Engineering at the University of Kentucky.

Since the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s (HISA) safety regulations went into effect in July of 2022, the RSTL has been responsible for overseeing pre-meet inspections, material testing and daily measurements at all racetracks under HISA’s jurisdiction. Indeed, the organization was responsible for more than 70 pre-meet inspections at 53 racetracks last year. It also provides the centralized electronic database through which information is shared with HISA.

In the following edited Q & A with Peterson he expands upon his Tuesday presentation, discussing the evolution of the RSTL’s work, key lessons learned, and the path forward for the industry.

TDN: What has the advent of HISA meant to the work you do?

MP: Prior to the start of HISA–and I’m only being partially facetious here–it was the tracks that needed the least help that we worked with the most. HISA has given us an opportunity to work with everyone, removing the economic barrier for the smaller tracks to get the information they need to make decisions.

One important aspect of this is, we don’t always tell them to spend more money. In fact, in a lot of cases, we can help them identify things that they might be putting money into that may not be benefiting from. For example, replacing extensive cushion every year. You’ll need to augment it oftentimes, but replacement is typically not necessary.

The other piece is that HISA has also helped us identify some best practices and some amazing performances from tracks that previously you would not even have considered. My example of that is John Banno [track superintendent] at Thistledown. He does an amazing job. He has some needs with equipment. He has some financial and support needs, some workforce issues. But given what he has, he has a fantastic track. And that’s through hard work.

TDN: Let’s talk about something discussed during the summit. Just why are hot dry climates so much better for dirt tracks than climates with hot summers and cold winters?

MP: I’m not sure it’s necessarily the temperature as it is the role of precipitation, both rain and snow, and in particular ice and freeze-thaw conditions. Those present particular challenges to maintaining a dirt track.

There are a number of tracks that have gotten quite good at it. But it requires a lot of care and a lot of experience to take care of that transition between a wet summer or a dry summer and a frozen and a thawing track.

The other particular challenge in some areas of the country, you’ll have it freezing overnight and thawing during the day. If you want to talk about a challenging situation for maintaining a track, that’s probably the most difficult.

TDN: [Grading is essentially the slope of the track from the outside inwards towards the rail and the transitions from the straights into the turns]. You said that the question of “variability” is so critical to cushion depth and grading. Why?

MP: Most of the loading on the skeleton of the horse is due to the muscle action. The track is not that big a deal if you look at it overall. But what’s fundamentally different about muscle action is the horse has trained on a particular surface. It lives with those muscles, has developed those muscles, and the skeletal system has developed to support that muscle loading. The track surface then turns that up to 11.

What happens is it’s just that little bit that pushes you over the cliff. And the problem with track variability is that it can be just for a few strides. It could be day to day. It could be when the horse ships to a new track. But you’ve just added that variation on top. And that’s what poses the risk to the horse, especially the fracture risk.

TDN: How does what you’ve just explained possibly correlate to the spate of fatalities at Churchill Downs and Saratoga last year?

MP: Churchill Downs, Saratoga, Santa Anita–we see weather events associated with a lot of these challenging periods in racetracks.

I guess it’s probably less true of Churchill because the weather wasn’t that unusual. But you still have these decisions to make when it’s been wet and it’s suddenly drying out. Or when it’s been dry and you’ve got rain coming in. The timing of all those maintenance decisions relative to the moisture content is incredibly difficult and takes a lot of experience.

Some superintendents have gotten very good at it. But with climate change, we’re seeing these variations in weather that are unprecedented for a lot of these tracks. It makes all that experience even more important.

TDN: When you talk about “variability,” you’re also talking about your other word du jour, “consistency,” right?

MP: If you think about that adaptation to the surface, what you’re really concerned about is the proverbial bad step. There’s a risk of a bad step when you ship from one track to another or when the weather changes unexpectedly. Consistency spatially and temporally and from track to track is what keeps the loading on the bones consistent with the adaptation of the skeleton for its purpose.

TDN: Is it fair to say, then, that sealed tracks themselves aren’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s how they’re managed when they’re opened up and they’re drying out that’s so critical?

MP: I agree with you completely. Again, if our focus is on consistency and we can get a consistent track, even though it’s sealed or floated, then the key is to make sure we understand what the hoof is doing on that surface and make sure that we can keep that going as the track gets sealed or as the track’s opened up.

TDN: Do you think the industry will come to a point where dirt surfaces maintained to the highest possible standards in the right kinds of environments will be just as safe as a synthetic surface?

MP: We’re already there. Santa Anita and Del Mar are two of the safest tracks in North America. Del Mar was the safest major track for like three out of seven years. Here’s the challenge: it’s not making the ones in the hot dry areas as safe as synthetics. The challenge we’ve got is to make all of the dirt tracks as safe as synthetics.

TDN: Do you think it’s possible then to get those tracks that are in those hot summer, cold, freezing winter climates as safe as synthetics?

MP: I have no doubt. I think some of them are going to be synthetics. But I think others can meet that standard.

TDN: You’ve been doing this for years now. During that time, what advances in track maintenance do you think have proven the most important?

MP: Probably the biggest gains we’ve seen in the last five, seven years has been on grading and maintaining consistent slopes. [Long-time SoCal-based track superintendent] Dennis Moore has been telling me for years about how critical it is to properly grade a track.

TDN: You’ve talked before about the “laser level” being so critical here. Why so?

MP: The three stages of work is for the track to tell the regulator what you are going to do. Second stage is to do the work. Third stage is to check the work.

The laser level is to check the work because you don’t know you’ve done a good job until you’ve measured it at the end of the day. So, they go out, carefully grade it, then they have someone else typically check it with a laser level to make sure they properly graded it, got their transitions consistent.

The laser level is an inexpensive piece of equipment. We’re talking $1,500. We are not talking a $50,000 piece of equipment. There’s just no reason for every track not to be using it.

TDN: How many tracks aren’t using it?

MP: I’m going to check my watch now because many are rapidly transitioning. And this has been one of the outcomes from HISA because the grades are measured every time we do our pre-meet inspections. We talk to them, show them how variable they are compared to other tracks, and then say, ‘have you thought about using a laser level’? Then they go buy a laser level, learn how to use it.

TDN: What are the key things that separate the good surface maintenance tracks from the tracks that could probably do better?

MP: There will be people who will tell you that they’ve got to have the right equipment. They need a big budget. They need a lot of staffing. They need a stable workforce. Those are all helpful. But I believe they can overcome almost all of those with just extraordinary leadership.

Thistledown is a great example of that. That is a fantastic surface. And Dan, I don’t know how to say it, the equipment is inadequate. But John Banno, he just works so hard to make it work. I’m not sure anybody else could take over there and make it work like he does.

By the same token, Southern California has shown that the best outcome is when there is investment in tracks and equipment combined with leadership and veterinary oversight.

TDN: How does the industry foster this kind of leadership more strategically?

MP: Have you seen our announcement for our superintendents meeting? These superintendents, a lot of them aren’t very young. There are a few good young ones. Chris Bosley, who is now at Ellis Park, is one. But this is a big workforce-related risk. If we don’t address that, nothing else matters.

Part of that is the industry needs to adapt to new things. The new generation of superintendents is going to make use of technology in a very different way because they’re going to be on their phone checking things. They’re going to be making use of electronics. They’re happy with the joystick to control the grader. They don’t have to have big levers. Those sorts of changes are a big deal.

Now, there’s a certain 72-year-old guy who loves technology–Dennis Moore–I love to use his as an example of someone older who adopts any technology you give him. What needs to happen is for these superintendents to work together to develop the skills between them, and then to bring in some new people.

TDN: You mentioned during the summit how you see plenty of room for improvement in the collection of real-time daily measurements. In an ideal world, what real time daily measurements would you like to see at every track and why?

MP: There is one real-time measurement that I really, really want to see. For turf, its daily measurements are fine. But on dirt, you really need moisture measurements done every race, and they need to be over the entire surface. That’s additional information for the superintendents to make during the course of a race card.

TDN: That’s going to require the building of new technologies.

MP: We’ve had several good ideas that have failed miserably. So yes, I think that’s exactly right. I can tell you a couple of things not to do. How’s that?

TDN: In broaching these needed advances, on Tuesday you discussed the need to make the information publicly available. Non-patented, in other words. Why is this your approach?

MP: To the extent that the methods and the equipment are standard, it allows us to build a larger data set and to have more people contributing to the design and interpretation of the data.

The best example of this is with our biomechanical surface tester. It was adopted through the [American Society for Testing and Materials] ASTM and as a standard measure for the [Federation Equestre Internationale] FEI. It’s been used at every Olympics since London. It’s used at four or five-star events. Out of the adoption of that research and the data that has been fed back into racing, it’s allowed us to continue to develop what we’re doing.

TDN: It’s just the right thing to do, in other words.

MP: Yes, it is the right thing to do. And I would love to see the same process move forward with some of the wearables because the interpretation of that data is so complex. And by providing the data in a much more open forum, it’ll make it much easier to validate the results as they come into more common use.

The post Mick Peterson Q & A: Dirt, Synthetics And ‘Extraordinary Leadership’ appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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