Consistent, regular maintenance and the sharing of information among superintendents are paramount to having quality, safe racing surfaces, said Dr. Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory.
Peterson was a guest speaker April 8 during the Association of Racing Commissioners International conference in Lexington. His slide presentation was co-authored by Dr. Christie Mahaffey.
"There is nothing proprietary about maintaining surfaces," Peterson said. "This stuff should be shared. It should be open literature."
Peterson said there are several circumstances that lead to issues with racing surfaces, whether they are dirt, turf, or synthetic. He said regular testing of surfaces is the exception, not the rule; investment in surfaces is reactive rather than proactive; and many racetracks do not have systematic maintenance programs.
"You have to look at it as if you are building a (racing surface) from scratch each day," Peterson said. "This is a continual process. It's an attitude. It's a cultural change."
In regard to catastrophic injuries, Peterson said they won't be eliminated, but that's no excuse for not investing resources in the best racing surface possible. He said synthetic surfaces need to be uniformly graded quite a bit, while "controlled water application" is very important in reducing injuries on turf and dirt.
"The best dirt surface is almost as safe as a synthetic surface," said Peterson, who noted Equine Injury Database statistics. "We really need to figure out what's going on with these tracks. For instance, the bad years on any dirt track are bad. We need to find out about those differences."
He suggested there is a 20%-30% increase in the likelihood of catastrophic distal limb fractures on "off" dirt surfaces.
Peterson said moisture content is of the utmost importance in consistent, safe racing surfaces. Santa Anita Park now measures moisture content each day, as does the New York Racing Association and Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots for its grass course, he said.
He called such daily reports, which include other parameters, "precision farming for horse racing."
The Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory now has access to EID statistics. Peterson said the lab is working toward using the information to better understand racing surfaces and how injuries can be mitigated.
"There is no data yet for risk assessment values when a (surface) is looked at," he said. "One or three (catastrophic breakdowns) per 1,000 starts is still too high. In my dreams we will have something like an ISO certification for surfaces."
(The International Organization for Standardization develops programs designed to make industries or processes more efficient and effective.)
Peterson told regulators racing surfaces shouldn't be considered the cause of fatal breakdowns. He said other factors—pre-existing injuries in a Thoroughbred, for example—must be considered when injuries or deaths are reviewed.
"It's just not one piece," Peterson said. "It's part of the puzzle."