Days after he declared the Santa Anita main track “100 percent ready” for racing and training and subsequently two more horses died, racing surfaces consultant Mick Peterson stands by his examination but also believes Santa Anita shutting down the track indefinitely was the right thing to do.
“There was no other option at this point, other than to close it, step back and look at everything again,” the University of Kentucky's Peterson told the Paulick Report Wednesday. “I did what I could. I didn't see anything. At that point, you just think, what the hell?”
Using ground penetrating radar and other equipment, Peterson and track superintendent Andy LaRocco verified the correct composition of the surface as well as the consistency of the moisture content, announcing their findings on Feb. 27.
“This testing ensures all components, the five-inch cushion, pad and base, are consistent and in good order,” Peterson said at the time.
Wednesday, the co-founder of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory said whatever's behind the 21 fatalities since the meet opened Dec. 26 cannot be tied to the composition of the track. Since 2014, Peterson has worked with recently retired Santa Anita superintendent Dennis Moore, who was brought back as a consultant this week.
“The composition of the track at Santa Anita over the last four years, working with Dennis and the monthly samples, we have got that dialed in. It doesn't change. It doesn't move,” Peterson said. “The needle is just sitting there solidly in the right place. And even after we had all this rain, we tested it and it looks just like it had before.
“Then what I say is: There's something we don't understand. We've got to work on this.”
For starters, Peterson said necropsies need to be completed to determine if they can shine light on any factors that might have led to the recent rash of deaths, which continues to generate national media attention.
Moore has started another examination of the Santa Anita surface; meanwhile, one area Peterson is working to develop is real-time analysis of moisture content. He said that could be a critical tool for a track like Santa Anita, where moisture levels might vary significantly between the backstretch and the frontside, for example, at any given moment.
In the bigger picture, Peterson said the fact he can name, off the top of his head, the relatively few comprehensive track surface studies of the past four decades is indicative of what needs to change. When it comes to the issue of synthetic tracks being replaced with dirt, as occurred at Santa Anita, Peterson, a “fan of synthetic surfaces,” doesn't claim expertise in the area of which surfaces are safest in a vacuum. It's all about the specific conditions for each individual track. In an ideal world, there would be a variety of racing options, dependent upon the conditions.
“If you could imagine, if there was an inside synthetic track they could race on and an outside dirt track; when it was rainy, you could be on the synthetic. When it was too hot, nobody likes the synthetic to get too hot; you could be on the dirt or the turf, you know what I mean? But I'm not the emperor of horse racing.”
In the real world, one thing that is changing — and dramatically — is the weather. February was one of the coldest and rainiest months on record in Southern California, and many in the track maintenance world believe that has to be one of the factors at work here.
Two thousand miles away, Indiana Grand track superintendent Roy Smith said he's been dealing with the same unusual weather patterns for the past several years, and it has changed his track maintenance practices.
“No matter who you talk to, the weather has changed drastically in the last five to 10 years,” Smith said. “Storms are more intense than they used to be. So what we've gone to doing, which a lot of racetracks do, is we seal the racetrack every day. When we're done racing or we're done training, at the end of the day, we're going to seal it down as tight as we can, not knowing what the weather's going to do. Weather forecasting is tougher today than it's ever been because of the extreme weather.”
A multi-step process leads to a sealed racetrack, but the end result is a more packed down surface that allows water to roll off of it. While sealing racetracks may have become a daily practice in many places, there's no evidence to suggest a sealed track is harder — or less safe — than a dry one, despite how it might sound. In fact, Peterson points to one study from the 1980s that found sealed tracks were safer. He uses the analogy of a beach. The sand closest to the water – the flat area where your feet sink in – that's the sealed track. Higher up the beach, there's the dry sand dune, which is also forgiving. In the middle is the harder strip of sand — that's equivalent to the hardest track condition.
Smith agrees: “When people see a sealed racetrack, they automatically think it's hard, and that's not necessarily true.”
Peterson said the more consistent track, sealed or open, is generally safer, which makes the recent problems at Santa Anita all the more confounding because comprehensive tests found it to be consistent in composition and moisture content.
It's likely the answers to this mystery do not lie solely inside the racetrack but elsewhere, too — in the barns, on the farms, in the labs, in the regulators' offices — everywhere horses are bred, cared for, tested, trained or overseen. Peterson believes every piece of the puzzle needs to be examined because while this latest spike in deaths at Santa Anita is attention-grabbing, racetrack fatalities are a consistently disturbing part of the game.
“We've got to continuously improve what we're doing. The status quo will never be okay. Even last year, which was a good year (for the number of fatalities), I was still not happy with the status quo.”
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