By T. D. Thornton
If the racing industry wants the biggest safety gain for the smallest amount of its limited money and time resources, proper water-control maintenance on both dirt and grass surfaces should be at the top of the list.
That was the main thrust of a solo presentation titled “Racing Surfaces and the Next Generation in Racing” given by Dr. Michael “Mick” Peterson Jr., the executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, at Wednesday’s Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit at Keeneland Race Course.
Racing surfaces “impact every horse, every day,” Peterson said, while also cautioning that “tracks can also have the issue that [surfaces] can be an excuse for other problems that are avoided.”
Unlike other safety and welfare issues that have multiple points of view (medication usage, for example), Peterson pointed out that nearly everyone is in agreement that fair dirt and turf surfaces are in everyone’s best interest.
“The owners, the track operators, the public–everybody wants decent tracks,” Peterson said. “There’s no constituency for inadequate, inconsistent surfaces. It’s just a model of good management and communication.”
Peterson, a mechanical engineer who is widely considered the preeminent track surface specialist in North America, continued to hammer home a point he has made at racing industry presentations for nearly a decade now: “Water matters.”
But coming up with an optimal moisture content number for all racing surfaces everywhere is not possible, Peterson said, because of the variabilities in climate (and in the case of turf courses) what type of grass is best suited to which region.
Peterson also continued to advocate for installing data-rich weather stations located at various points around each track to help build a more robust central database that could be of benefit both to that specific track and to future, long-term nationwide safety studies. Handicappers, he added, would also greatly benefit from more accurate daily on-track weather info.
As it currently stands, just looking at a backstretch rainfall gauge doesn’t cut it, he added, because “if you look at a rain gauge, you never get better.”
Peterson also shared how rainfall data is now being parsed in a different way by a new era of track superintendents. Rainfall data over the course of the meet used to be considered quite useful. But now the emerging benchmark has more to do with the permeability of dirt and turf racing surfaces, and how fast and hard the rain comes down at any given time.
“Our new metric now, when we compare race meet to race meet, is number of 15-minute intervals with measurable rain,” Peterson said. “It seems common sense after the fact. But the fact is, nobody was doing it.”
Responding to an audience question about the variabilities in biased racing surfaces, Peterson again underscored the moisture-control angle. That’s accomplished not just by removing excess rain water, he said, but by adding moisture via water trucks during the course of a racing card when it’s needed.
“Fairness of the racetrack is very closely related to consistency,” Peterson said. “One of the major fairness issues is inconsistency from the rail out. The most typical cause of a ‘fast’ rail would be a variation in cushion depth or moisture content. Those are the two key measurements that we make.”
Kickback is also a fairness issue, Peterson argued. Even though it’s a separate problem, it has the same solution as eliminating a track bias, he added.
“You’re not going to be particularly surprised that my approach to changing kickback on a dirt surface is that water is the single most important variable that will affect kickback,” Peterson said. “So if we’re controlling moisture, we’re doing the best thing that we can do through the race card to keep a consistent surface. If you see a fairness issue evolving over the course of a race card, it’s probably a moisture issue.”
As the final speaker in the day-long presentation, Peterson wrapped up the summit by reiterating how rider safety and animal welfare form the “central opportunity as well as risk for racing.”
Peterson summed it up: “It isn’t the world that existed 20 or 30 years ago. It’s a different world. It’s a world that has expectations, both for the safety of the riders and the equine participants…. So by protecting the horse and protecting the rider, we’re protecting the sport. Cause and effect–the inputs are safety, the output is the future of the sport.”
Jockey Safety: Model Rule Exists, ‘Hard Part’ Is Implementing it
Now that a model rule pertaining to head injury and concussion protocol for riders has been approved by both the Jockeys’ Guild and the Association of Racing Commissioners International, the racing industry faces the challenge of finding ways to pay for and implement these best-practice standards on a national level.
That was the takeaway message from Dr. Carl Mattacola, the associate dean of academic and faculty affairs at the University of Kentucky, who spoke at Wednesday’s eighth Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit at Keeneland Race Course to deliver updates on his research conducted via the Jockey Injury Database (JID) and the newly created Jockey Equestrian Initiative of the Sports Medicine Research Institute.
“Concussion has changed the way that we look at sports,” Mattacola told the conference attendees. “There are rules, there are regulations, there are models, there’s research and there are dollars that have flowed into [other] professional and amateur sports like no other condition that’s ever been presented. The long-term implications are serious, and we still don’t know a lot about the long-term implications of head injury.”
But, Mattacola cautioned, “U.S. horse racing is only one of the only organized [sports] that really doesn’t have a complete, comprehensive concussion plan. Some of the challenges are similar to any profession. There’s a resistance to change, particularly if that change involves the potential for additional dollars or for a [national regulatory] structure that may not be there.”
But Mattacola is realistic that sweeping change does not come quickly to any industry, even when the benefits are backed up by supporting data. In that spirit, he urged the racing industry to take a “start locally and grow globally” approach to phasing in the key points of the protocols he developed based on his ongoing, years-long study of jockey injuries.
That’s exactly what Mattacola did when he helped the state of Kentucky implement a pilot concussion management program for jockeys at the state’s Thoroughbred tracks over the last three years.
Part of that work centered on establishing baselines for more than 130 Kentucky-based jockeys on various Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT) tests so that responding medical professionals would have comparative data available to check in the event that one of those jockeys sustained a head injury in a race. Keeneland, Mattacola said, later made having the SCAT baseline info on file at the track a requirement for jockeys who wished to ride there.
Yet while some jurisdictions have other forms of “return to riding” requirements in place to ensure a jockey is safe to resume racing after a spill, not enough tracks employ a dedicated medical professional on staff to oversee that protocol and to collect further accident data that can help shape more effective future policies, Mattacola said.
“So one of the challenges with not having a medical professional in place at the tracks is [that injury data reported to the JID is] haphazard, to say the least,” Mattacola said.
Although the hiring of a dedicated, on-track medical director and/or an athletic trainer can be a significant expense, such a medical professional would provide day-to-day acute care (from both jockeys and backstretch personnel), handle referrals to required specialists, and ensure the accurate reporting of JID data that will better inform future industry decisions. Associations that do invest in on-site medical personnel might also realize reduced costs related to workers’ compensation insurance, he added.
Mattacola said he and the like-minded researchers on his team are constantly asking themselves, “How can we put this model in place so it’s sustainable?”
Mattacola asserted: “The model rule has been established. Now is the hard part–getting it integrated and making it commonplace. And to me, that’s a change in culture, with constant repetition.”
‘Irish’ to Be Freshened; Motion Talks Training Trends at Safety Summit
Trainer H. Graham Motion reported Wednesday that MGSW and ‘TDN Rising Star’ Irish War Cry (Curlin) is “absolutely fine” but “won’t run again this summer.” The news came eleven days after the colt was pulled up and vanned off the track in the
GI Stephen Foster H. at Churchill Downs.
Irish War Cry had difficulty handling the stifling 90-plus degree Louisville heat on June 16, and Motion did not shy away from using that disquieting experience as a lead-in to a Q&A session titled “Role of the Trainer in Racehorse Safety” at Wednesday’s eighth Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit at Keeneland Race Course.
“I regret running him the other night, to be honest,” Motion admitted. “I was upset with myself [afterwards]. Hindsight’s 20/20, but I really felt that it was going to cool off once the sun went down. I was there myself because I wanted to make the decision, and I just think I underestimated how hot it was, and it never cooled off. He really struggled with it.”
Motion continued: “Horses can’t talk, and ultimately that’s the problem we have…. As trainers, we have to make that assumption. We are there to protect them. There’s no one else that can do that. And I think that becomes a tremendous responsibility. I take it very seriously. I do kick myself for running the other night. I think I put him in an awkward situation. I felt he would be able to deal with it, and he wasn’t.”
The plan now for Irish War Cry?
“We’ll wait to the fall for a cooler day,” Motion said.
Motion, a winner of 2,309 races who is known for his patient approach, made numerous other thoughtful points during his hour as a featured speaker. Highlights included:
On synthetic surfaces
“I think there’s a big use for synthetic tracks. Even if it’s not necessarily used as a sole racing surface, I think it should be used as an alternate surface, perhaps. On rainy days when races come off the turf, it gives you a tremendous option…. As a training surface, it’s a great opportunity. I think it’s a shame [synthetic tracks have been largely phased out]. I know there’s been talk about possibly putting a synthetic track in New York, and I think it would be a huge asset…. I do think they have a place, [because] horses tend to come up with less injuries on them.”
On the increasing number of turf opportunities for young horses
“I think things have changed so much in the last 10 years. When I first started, we would go to Gulfstream, and I don’t believe we ran maidens on the grass at Gulfstream at that time. [But I do think there is a risk] of the grass being used so much these days [because] it’s a surface that cannot take the beating that a dirt course can take, and I do worry. The turf races fill very well, tracks are very keen to run turf races, they get big fields. But turf courses take a beating, and I do think that’s detrimental in the long run to the soundness and the safety of the horses, and I think that’s a problem that somehow we have to deal with. It actually interests me—I’m always slightly amused that [more owners] aren’t looking to go out and buy grass horses early on, because there is so much money in grass racing. There are so many more opportunities than there used to be, without a doubt, than when I first started.”
On the elongated spacing of races for top-level horses
“Again, I think we balance a fine line as trainers. Much more is put into our records, our own personal statistics, whether it’s percentages or just wins. So I think we tend to be a bit more conservative with placing horses. But I also think we probably know a little but more today scientifically about how long it take a horse to recover from a race to be at their optimum, and often we’re pointing for big races. I mean, if I want to run a horse in the Breeders’ Cup in November, I probably want that to be no more than its fifth or sixth start [of the season] if I want to get it there in what I feel is its best condition. Because you run the risk of a horse…being ‘over the top’ once they get to the Breeders’ Cup.”