07/09/2014 4:20PM

Water content key to keeping tracks safe, consistent


LEXINGTON, Ky. – Ongoing research into the maintenance of dirt tracks is increasingly pointing to the importance of water content in keeping the surface consistent throughout the oval and on an hour-to-hour, day-to-day basis, according to Dr. Mick Peterson, an expert on measuring track surfaces who is the executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory.

Consistency, according to Peterson – who has developed his own biomechanical tools to measure an array of surface traits – is the most important factor when determining the safety of any specific racing surface. Therefore, if tracks get better in keeping the moisture content in their dirt tracks consistent, it is likely that fewer horses will be injured when racing and training over the surfaces over the long-term, Peterson said.

“Consistency is perfection, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Dr. Peterson said.

Peterson made his comments during a panel on racing-surface maintenance on Wednesday during the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit at Keeneland. The summit, held for the fifth time this year, has served as the launching point for several major racing-industry safety initiatives, including the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory that Peterson heads.

The panel also included Glen Kozak, the vice president of facilities and racing surfaces at the New York Racing Association, which operates three racetracks with nine racing surfaces, when including turf courses.

Speaking after Peterson, Kozak described the array of tools he uses to record the maintenance procedures his crew undertakes throughout the day and night, all of which is combined with real-time weather data and the GPS locations and routes of his tractors and water trucks.

"The level of data we're using now has made my job so much easier," said Kozak. He added that after arriving in Lexington on Tuesday afternoon, he pulled down all of NYRA’s maintenance data for Tuesday morning on his phone.

Gary Contessa, a trainer based in New York, said after the panel that NYRA’s reliance on data has resulted in more focused maintenance on all of its tracks.

“I see a much safer track, and the willingness to fix a problem quickly when a problem arises,” Contessa said.

Peterson acknowledged that data continues to show that fewer horses suffer catastrophic injuries on artificial surfaces at U.S. tracks than U.S. dirt tracks. However, in a nod to the fading popularity of synthetic tracks – Keeneland has already ripped out its artificial surface, and Del Mar will rip out its own soon – Peterson also said that “good dirt tracks are almost as safe as synthetic tracks.” Peterson is consulting on Keeneland’s project to install a new dirt track.

Part of the reason synthetic tracks have a lower rate of catastrophic injury may be the consistency of the track from start to finish line in comparison to dirt tracks, Peterson said. His measurements have shown that the range of variability for synthetic tracks is much smaller than dirt tracks, which could indicate that dirt tracks have more small inconsistencies that can lead to the proverbial “bad step” that is believed to be a factor in many breakdowns. (Among scientists who study the issue, the “bad step” refers to an anomalous loading incident caused by an inconsistency in racing surface. Combined with pre-existing injuries at the site of a fracture and possibly other variables, it can contribute to a catastrophic breakdown.)

“The [track surfaces] don’t cause the problem, but they can improve the situation,” Peterson said.

Consistent water management practices and measurements of the surface depth, or cushion, can help to smooth out those inconsistencies in dirt tracks, Peterson said. At Santa Anita, personnel take 144 water measurements a day at the track, according to Peterson. The measurements are used to determine how much water should be added at different spots at the track, combined with evaporation models specific to the track.

NYRA uses a similar model to determine the water that should be added to its dirt surfaces, Kozak said. NYRA maintenance personnel has for years taken surface-depth measurements from an array of locations around its dirt tracks, and it posts that information in a chart daily near the racing office and at customer service. The measurements are used to determine where the track needs to be evened out, to make it consistent throughout the track and to align the figures with historical referents. 

Kozak also said he relies on the data to determine when and where to harrow the track and perform other maintenance procedures. In addition, the data is being used to consistently determine a track’s conditions, replacing what was once a largely subjective system used to call a track good, wet, or muddy, for example.

“I never knew how much we were missing,” Kozak said.

Ken Wiener More than 1 year ago
With all respect to Dr. Peterson, his "almost as safe" comment with respect to good dirt tracks verus synthetic tracks is not supported by the publicly available figures. Perhaps the good doctor could direct us to the specific comparisons he is relying on for his dubious statement. I realize full well the point is moot in the United States.
Richard More than 1 year ago
Fast tracks make for fast horses and fast times ; not safer more competitive races. Mr. Kozak has been notorious for maintaining fast rails and speed favoring surfaces, whether dirt or turf. This study should focus on safety and fair playing surfaces which produce competitive and exciting races. We don't want track records being set every week and an endless plethora of wire to wire winners.
Beenthere Donethat More than 1 year ago
I never understood why they never put automatic sprinkling units around the tracks like those on a golf course. Watching them in operation, the spray looks as if an array of directional heads on the inner and outer rails facing the center of the track would cover the entire track surface. It seems like once they are installed it would be cheaper to run them than a brigade of water trucks and more effective to operate between races. Perhaps it is something to look into for the guys who have 27 zillion bucks to spend on TV screens. The water makes the sand content of the surface harden and in so doing adds traction to the push off points of the gallop. The difference is not unlike the dry sand at the beach the hard wet sand where the waves have washed up, the difference of course attenuated by the percentage of sand in the mixture. We know that these horses are capable of faster clocking than we have been seeing. These 1:49s were considered grade 3 times in the early 90s. Times in highly graded races were much more similar from track to track than today and a 1:48 time was a bit of a letdown in a grade 1 race other than young 3yos in the early spring. At least in the central and east coast tracks this seems true. Horses still got injured back then, but not at the rate of today. Perhaps there is a correlation between the trend towards slower surfaces and the increase of injury rates. Perhaps more traction is safer. It seems to make sense. What do you think?
Chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Were there not two new track records at Belmont last Saturday?
Beenthere Donethat More than 1 year ago
I am not talking about track record fast. I know what that is like too. At Philly Park, once Keystone, now Parx, there was summer where 5,000 claimers were running 1:09s. I am talking about when grade 1 9-furlong handicap races were consistently in the 1:47s through the year, from the Donn Handicap all the way through. We know that today's horses are the same. It is not that they cannot run a 1:47 under the right conditions, it is that it is impossible to run it on the surfaces they are running on. Softer is not always safer, hence the numbers in Ca. and the return to dirt, especially when it takes more effort to stay in the race. I believe there is a happy medium and that these guys are on to something good, and it may be the case that when race times are a reflection of class, where low level claimers are coming home in 1:12 and the grade 1s are doing the 1:09, things are right, and when things are right, it could end up being things are safer. I look forward to learning of their findings. We draw conclusions in our heads, but lets see the data.
Mike R More than 1 year ago
Beenthere Donethat, I understand your thinking that an watering system without using large trucks would be cheaper. The reason it probably hasn't been used has to do with uniformity of application. On a golf course it doesn't matter if one spot gets a bit more water than another spot, as long as there is enough to keep the grass growing and not create a puddle in another everything is good. Racing surfaces on the other hand need an exact uniform application across the track that only a water truck can provide. With regard to maintenance, the cost factor of sprinklers would be cheaper, but what happens when a sprinkler malfunctions and creates a big muddy spot five paths wide at the sixteenth pole, that spells disaster. Perhaps my knowledge of sprinkler technology is antiquated but if there is a system that can apply a uniform application and can automatically shut itself off should a malfunction occur then some entrepreneur can make a lot of money with that idea. The only improvement I could offer up would be expensive and the malfunction issue would still be a problem.
Chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
We know that safer tracks are possible and I don't believe you'd find arguments against that but I see no mention of "big" days when management has the track Super hop the track for faster times. When we see a trend of new track records that's a red flag for all.