07/09/2014 3:20PM

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.