A pair of presenters on racetrack surfaces at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit talked about how improved information is helping to improve surfaces throughout the U.S. during a session July 9 at Keeneland.
Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, said better record-keeping of track maintenance is improving track safety and consistency, especially with dirt surfaces. With major tracks like Del Mar and Keeneland planning to switch their main tracks from synthetic to dirt surfaces next year, such information will be especially important.
"The best dirt is not as good as synthetic, but it's close," Peterson said of the safety records of the two surfaces. "If we look year to year, the good dirt tracks are almost as good as the synthetics."
Peterson noted that his lab is not able to give tracks a magic bullet on dirt surface make-up because each track's need varies by region and weather. Even once a track has a top mix for its dirt surface, maintaining that track is paramount. Peterson said the biggest factor in maintenance of dirt and turf surfaces is water content.
"With dirt and turf surfaces, water completely dominates the equation," Peterson said. "Yes, maintenance matters."
Peterson said tracks today are collecting information on weather before and during racing, surface information from testing, water application data, and surface temperature information. Keeneland has developed a model to predict how fast water will evaporate based on weather information.
The New York Racing Association is compiling weather information updated at 15-minute intervals and using global positioning technology to record track maintenance. That has provided NYRA vice president of facilities and racing surfaces Glen Kozak with a wealth of information he can use to make decisions on maintaining surfaces.
"The data tells the story on everything we do at the racetrack," Kozak said. "Until Mick got involved, I didn't know what we were missing."
With that historical data to fall back on, Kozak and his team can look at a historical record when making decisions about the numerous racing and training surfaces on the NYRA circuit. Kozak noted that each surface is a little different.
"To have that data to go back and look at our racing surfaces, what direction they're going, one year, two years," Kozak said. "It's all data that we can point back to."
New York-based trainer Gary Contessa is seeing that technology deliver improved surfaces.
"I see a much safer track, a much more horse friendly track," Contessa said. "We're seeing more of a willingness to quickly fix a problem when it arises. I see a lot of focus on the tracks at NYRA. They're doing a hell of a job."