During Wednesday night's “Racing Surfaces” panel discussion hosted by the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program, Dr. Mick Peterson revealed he is working closely with Santa Anita in the lead up to the Breeders' Cup to install new prototypes of data-gathering technology on the track maintenance equipment.
The director of the University of Kentucky Ag Equine Program and executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, Peterson explained that the “Holy Grail” for the RSTL will be the ability to collect real-time data to aid in track superintendents' decision-making processes.
While the technology is still very new, Peterson is hopeful that the prototype is a step in the right direction. It includes GPS, a moisture sensor, and a device to measure the track's cushion depth. The most important of these, Peterson suggested, is the moisture sensor, developed in concert with the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council.
An analysis of the statistics in the Equine Injury Database does not support that any particular track surface condition (fast, sloppy, etc.) is a significant factor in fatal breakdowns, Peterson said, so the biggest factor a superintendent can reasonably adjust is how he or she adapts to changing weather conditions.
Therefore, Peterson believes that optimizing the moisture content across the track surface could be a game changer for the industry.
Currently the RSTL's best practices for determining the moisture content of a track involve drying a sample for over 24 hours in an oven. Other, more efficient moisture-reading devices are not practical for racetrack use because they only measure moisture content on the track surface, not four inches deep into the cushion where the horses' hooves are landing.
This new prototype is designed to be attached to the track maintenance equipment, and its moisture readings will be a lot closer to real-time data and hopefully just as accurate as the current method.
Of course, collecting that data (and verifying it) is just the first step toward better understanding. Once the data is collected over a period of time, it can be analyzed in concert with data on any catastrophic injuries that occurred during the same period, and Peterson hopes the results will point to the next major step toward a safer racing surface.
Earlier in the panel discussion, he pointed to the recently-completed Del Mar meeting as an example of a dirt track with zero fatal racing breakdowns. The success of that meet, he emphasized, was based not just on the safety of the track surface. Breakdowns are multi-factorial, Peterson said several times, so Del Mar's success stems from a team effort employed by the horsemen, the state veterinarians, and at the executive level.
“We need to make every meet like the Del Mar meet, making (fatal breakdowns) so rare that we don't have to talk about it,” Peterson said. “I think we're seeing a culture shift across the entire industry.”
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