Summary of the Summit: Racetrack Surfaces Panel

When I left Brooklyn 12 days, 2,500 miles, and 10 states ago, I knew that I’d visit two racetracks, see lots of friends, meet many horses, research not enough, and, probably, write very little.  I didn’t know that I’d spend two days in the Keeneland sales pavilion listening to panels of industry folks talk about the health and safety issues in racing.

The Jockey Club’s third Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse included sessions on track surfaces; the Racing Medication and Testing  Consortium; the NTRA Safety Alliance; the Equine Injury Database; racing equipment and safety; racetrack environment and training practices; and Thoroughbred retirement.  Daily Racing Form, The Blood-Horse, and Thoroughbred Times have all written multiple articles on the summit; what will follow here over the next few days are details of the participants’ comments, along with outcomes of the committee work and objectives for continued work in these areas.

A few notes:

–These reports are ridiculously long and detailed; they are not transcriptions, but I tried to catch most of what everyone said.  So—skim, search, skip.

–I didn’t get everything; some comments were hard to hear, and sometimes my attention was pulled away from the panels.  These reports are not comprehensive, and I can only hope that what’s not here doesn’t have a significant effect on what it is.

–It was heartening to hear that so many people are doing so much for the safety of equine and human athletes in racing.  Lots of really smart, engaged, committed people are working to make the sport safer, despite the myriad challenges they face.

–Here’s a link to Drs. Stover’s and Peterson’s 2008 presentation in Saratoga.

Racetrack Surfaces Panel

In 2008, I attended the synthetic summit held at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion in Saratoga, at which several of this summit’s presenters also participated; on Monday, some of them presented updates on work that had been discussed then.

Dr. Mick Peterson of the University of Maine reiterated Monday that track surfaces are not always the cause of the problem of equine injury, but that they can be part of the surfaces.  As he put it, “It’s easy to blame the track, and occasionally true.”  A goal of the 2008 Jockey Club summit was to promote consistent and safe track surfaces; an outcome of that summit was the development of a non-profit lab to establish standard procedures for studying track surfaces, so that racing would have one lab with consistent methods of studying data that could be put in a central database.

Peterson acknowledged that to this point, while the lab has been established, there is still no generally accepted protocol, no standard set of tests to monitor surface performance.  What’s needed, he said, is a database and reliable and consistent testing, so that racing can “focus its investments on protecting horses & riders.”

While understanding that different regions of the United States have different needs when it comes to maintaining their tracks, Peterson stressed the need for outcomes and for tools to study surface permeability, hardness, shear strength, and energy absorption.

As he did in 2008, Peterson emphasized the importance of keeping data on the weather, because track maintenance is pegged to weather.  He noted that at Churchill Downs and the California tracks, information about the weather goes to a central data location.  He suggested that track superintendents and maintenance crews need to keep track of when the track is watered during the day, and how much water is put down, observing that the track will evaporate less water in the afternoon, when temperatures are cooler.

One of the challenges he noted, using a good deal of scientific terminology about instruments, is that standard measuring tools don’t work for synthetic tracks, because the rubber in the composition gives false readings.  One of the lab’s areas of focus is the testing of track composition, as maintenance depends on climate, design, and materials of the track.

Those who decry the lack of open, free, available information in racing will be pleased to hear that the methods of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory are non-proprietary and open to everyone.  While still fledgling, the lab’s website is worth checking out.

Among Peterson’s methods is a base composition test from different areas of the track.  He has found that the composition of the surface from different areas of the same track is inconsistent.  He used as an example the areas of the track where trucks come out to deposit sand over the track.  This is why, he stressed, track input is crucial, and he has envisioned varying levels of track participation.  “The Silver Plan” (as opposed to the higher levels of gold or platinum) is one of which all tracks can take advantage:  access to the database, providing tools for track superintendents; weather monitoring; documenting water and track configuration; material composition testing.

Higher levels of participation would include using a biomechanical hoof tester to assess shear strength, hardness, and energy absorption of the surface.

Peterson also spoke of evaluating track design, specifically banking, transitions, cushion, and drainage, using GPS and ground penetrating radar, which can detect variation in the base and depth of the cushion and the separation of materials, thereby allowing superintendents to identify problems in the track before they arise.  And as he did two years ago, Peterson observed that the #1 uncontrollable variable on turf and dirt is moisture, and mentioned that Churchill Downs has funded a water track that can measure in real time the moisture content of the track, then monitor how much water is being put down, enabling track maintenance workers to adjust water application as the truck goes around the track.

More than once through the presentation, Peterson emphasized that while track surface does not cause the problem of equine injury, it can help to provide a solution.  As more than one presenter noted, without disease in the horse, there’s no breakdown, regardless of the surface.  Other elements that contribute to injuries are conformation, shoeing, and training.

He ended his presentation by saying that the “Holy Grail” of epidemiology is determining what track characteristics protect horses and riders.

Next up was Dr. Sue Stover of the University of California-Davis, to talk about injuries and racing surfaces.  As she did in Saratoga in 2008, she emphasized that equine fatalities are due to pre-existing injuries, and she noted that fetlock support injuries constitute one-third of fatalities in California; when fetlock support structures undergo lengthening, the risk of injury is increased.

The Jockey Club funded a study in which she reconstructed fragments of sesamoid bone fractures; she observed defects at the back portion of the bone that seemed to indicate pre-existing injury and pre-disposition to fracture.  In the uninjured leg, she found a similar area of osteoporosis.  Her conclusion led to two key concepts.  Mild injury can result from high impact loading on the bone, which can induce micro damage.  When that mild injury is repaired but not permitted to heal fully before regular training is resumed, greater injury can occur.  In her estimation, two to three weeks after the initial repair, when the healthy bone tissue has not regenerated, is when horses are at a high risk for fracture.

Her conclusion, then, is that fatalities are preventable in this window of opportunity, the weeks or months in which the horse is at risk and the risk is detectable.  The signs of mild injury are available during pre-race physical exam; she found a 5 – 18 times greater risk when mild injuries are detected, and she observed that approximately 45% of horses with an injury detected during a pre-race exam are lost to the racing pool within three months.

Her stated goals are to develop a standard for race surface behavior to minimize injury; and to optimize equine limb biomechanics, both of which would minimize the need for equine skeletal systems to readapt because the surface would be more consistent.

To this end, she’s working on recreating track surfaces in the lab to see how the surfaces behave and to simulate various behaviors to determine how to optimize limb biomechanics, studying the effects of different factors.  While the lab work is an economical way to study the surfaces, she also uses a portable system at the track to validate the lab measurements and make sure that they’re applicable.

She noted a few observations:  harrowing increases compliance and decreases peak loads; maintenance affects different surfaces differently; base material can affect how the hoof limb interacts with the surface.

Her final messages:  equine fatalities are due to pre-existing conditions; they can be prevented; racing surfaces matter; and management of those surfaces matters.

Following Peterson’s and Stover’s presentations, moderator Ed Bowen, president of The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, invited the other panelists into the conversation and took questions from the audience.

Dr. Ashley Hill of Colorado State University noted that a critical step in addressing equine injury is addressing its “multi-factorial nature” and collecting the various types of data available from pre-race exams, training regimens, track surfaces, and maintenance.  And once that data is collected, it needs to be analyzed to “tease out” the effects of individual factors.

Glen Kozak, director of surfaces at the New York Racing Association, was asked to talk about the differences in the New York tracks that he manages.  He noted the clay-based “East Coast” style of Saratoga, which is maintained through harrowing. Belmont, he said, is clay-based and is maintained with a harrow that rides on the bottom/base of the track, similar to the limestone base at the Belmont training track.  The Aqueduct track is a clay base with more silt and clay in it, while the inner track has a basic limestone base with higher masonry and sand, and less silt and clay for winter maintenance.  It’s maintained with a little salt to keep the surface consistent.  (For more on the Aqueduct dinner track, see my March post on it.)

Kozak also jokingly took the opportunity to debunk the rumors that the inner track is heated by an underground heating system.

Javier Barajas, who has maintained tracks at Arlington and in Dubai, observed that the high temperatures in Dubai mean keeping the synthetic track tight, so that it doesn’t get too slow and tiring.

Bowen asked the track superintendents to comment on the idea that tracks are “souped up” for big race days.

Barajas said that he’s been in the business for 34 years and never once thought, “Let’s change the track now.”  The surface should be, he said, “just as perfect for a $4,000 claimer as for a $4 million race.” He admitted that he worried about World Cup horses running 1:16—“I can get in trouble for that,” he said—so he tries to keep the track as uniform as he can.

Kozak noted that management has no say in the track condition.

Bowen asked whether fast tracks are “more dangerous,” and Peterson said that 2009 information from Churchill Downs debunks the myth of the souped up track.  Speed, he said, is multi-factorial, just like risk.  The crowd, the population of horses, the attitude of the trainers—all can contribute to horses going faster, and all the factors that might contribute are not necessarily evident.

Stover said that it’s a “little dangerous” to give a simple answer, given the number of factors.

Peterson indicated that there’s not a lot of controversy in the world of equine injury:  the biggest risk, he says, is the inconsistency of the track.  He likened it to humans running on grass then on asphalt, or up or down steps, focusing on the ability to adapt.  Humans, he said, can adapt in real time; horses are one or two strides behind, so they could be adapting to a soft spot when they hit a hard one.  “Consistency,” he said, “is the risk.”

Bowen asked the panel to consider the effect of a new base, rather than new surfaces, on equine injury, noting that it’s been said that re-doing the bases of the tracks that have adopted synthetic surfaces might have been just as effective in reducing injury as replacing dirt with a synthetic surface.

Hill built on previous comments when she answered that it’s hard to say what causes the decrease in injury when more than one element is changed.  She observed that this is where lab work can come in, because each factor can be analyzed independently.

Peterson noted that some dirt tracks have lower variability than synthetics when the base is consistent; he said that radar on the California tracks showed that the base was inconsistent.

There was a brief conversation about trainers’ attitudes towards dirt and synthetic tracks.  Kozak noted that it’s tough to keep turf courses together when so many races are carded on them; the benefit of synthetic is an additional surface for off-dirt races, he said.

Stover said that at this point, we can only speculate on the relationship between turf and synthetics, while Peterson remarked that the fibers in a synthetic track can function similarly to the roots of a turf course, increasing the shear strength, which might suggest a probable continuum on how the horse is affected.  [Please don’t ask me what any of that really means.]

Stover reiterated her support of the pre-race exam, saying that a Kentucky study associated increased risk with positive findings of abnormality.  She cautioned, though, that while the risk of injury is great, the occurrence of injury is low, and it’s possible that tracks could end up holding horses back that would be OK.

Repeating her earlier comments, she said that evidence of mild injury takes an insidious toll:  within 3 months, those horses with mild injuries are not in the racing population.  We must, she said, use pre-race exams to keep horses healthy and racing.

Dr. Hill repeated that it’s critical to insure that pre-race inspection data for all horses is available to include in the analysis of injury.

Next up:  Reports from the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, and the NTRA Safety Alliance.

Also upcoming will be “from the road” reports on Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby Museum, a couple of farms, and the Keeneland Library.  With any luck, we’ll be done with Kentucky before Saratoga starts!

3 thoughts on “Summary of the Summit: Racetrack Surfaces Panel

  1. Wow. Once again, very thorough. Both interesting posts but like you, I have no idea what most of it means! But it is heartening to see so many people concerned about equine health and safety 🙂

  2. Informative article. A trainer I know has complained because the base of a thoroughbred racetrack has not been replaced for ten years. He feels this is causing career ending injuries and sore horses who cannot run as often or compete for lower purses but can win higher purses at other tracks. Could a ten year old base be a cause of injuries? Are most track bases replaced more often than every ten years?

  3. Carol, that’s a question that I’ve heard often raised. I don’t know how often bases are replaced, but I’ve heard people wonder whether a base replacement, regardless of surface, would also lead to fewer breakdowns.

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