Racetrack operators hoped that the changes implemented in 2019 to reduce the number of horse deaths on their tracks would prove successful. Most of those changes were small in nature, but they crossed their fingers and hoped for a better year in 2020.
There have been fewer horse deaths in 2020 thus far. However, that may or may not coincide with the coronavirus pandemic and the shutdown of most of the horse racing industry from mid-March through May and into June.
Dr. Michael Peterson is an expert in racing surface safety. After working for years at the University of Maine, he moved to Kentucky and took on positions at the University of Kentucky-Lexington in 2017, one as professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering and the other as director of ag equine programs. And he hopes to improve the surfaces of racetracks around the United States – and the world – to better protect horses.
Deaths Accumulate at Tracks in 2020
The primary concern of the equine industry over the past few months has been the detrimental impacts of the pandemic. Tracks closed, countless numbers of employees and racing personnel became unemployed, and everyone from jockeys to clockers continues to struggle.
Before the shutdowns, however, California tracks showed worrying signs regarding horse safety. By the end of April, Santa Anita recorded 12 incidents and/or accidents resulting in horse deaths this year.
The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) was monitoring the situations but had yet to find any fault on the part of Santa Anita Park.
By the end of June, the number of deaths at Santa Anita rose to 15 in 2020.
Los Alamitos Race Course in California hasn’t had a stellar year, either. As June came to an end, two deaths added to its tally. The last weekend in June saw a 3-year-old filly suffer a fatal injury during a race. A 2-year-old gelding injured his leg during his very first race, resulting in euthanization.
By the end of June, Los Alamitos counted 18 horse deaths related to racing or training in 2020.
Paging Dr. Peterson
The professor has worked to make horse racing safer for 15 years. Peterson’s resume is filled with a range of experience and accolades, but his current roles at the University of Kentucky put him in a prime spot to help the American horse racing industry.
His current research includes veterinary engineering, which includes the following:
- Moderate strain rate testing and behavior of granular composite footing materials
- Hoof soil interface measurement
- Stability and turning mechanics of the horse at the gallop
- Testing for design of footing materials
- Epidemiology of racetrack injuries for thoroughbred horses
- Cetacean biomechanics (animal movements)
Basically, Peterson and his team at the Racing Surface Testing Laboratory are developing protocols to test horse racing surfaces. They monitor every aspect of the tracks, from the weather conditions to the moisture content of surfaces.
WKYT spoke to Peterson about his work and how his protocols are now used at 14 of the top race tracks in the United States. His sponsors include Churchill Downs, the Jockey Club, Oak Tree Racing Association, New York Racing Association, Woodbine Racing Association, Keeneland Association, Turfway Park, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA).
“We have every safety system in place, and we need to document that everything has been done to provide the most consistent surface possible for the races that are coming up,” he told WKYT. Keeneland is one of the tracks that he monitors.
Safety as Top Goal
NTRA President and CEO Alex Waldrop noted that the horse racing industry is under more scrutiny now than ever before, especially due to the number of horse deaths in 2019. “We have to do more,” he said. “Maintaining a track surface that’s safe and fair is essential. It’s not optional any longer.”
The only thing that has slowed Peterson’s progress of late has been the coronavirus. He and his team made numerous changes at the University of Kentucky testing lab, but they push forward to help the sport to which they are dedicated.
A recent $100,000 grant from the NTRA is helping that progress. The purpose of the investment was to create a lab space at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, which will include a 45×45 testing arena. Peterson originally proposed the lab in 2010 but is at a point now that it is necessary.
As he told the NTRA in a recent interview, the new lab is critical in incorporating actual horses into the testing. That step will be integral in “understanding the pieces” of the research.
Some of the first projects on the agenda will include repairing divots and watering turf tracks. And the team is making progress on horse shoe designs to minimize the risks of horses clipping heels. They are also working on understanding the degradation of synthetic surfaces.
Overall, Peterson believes the ongoing research all fits together. He said the real challenge is to continue beyond finding initial answers, to incorporate those answers into improvements and see real change at tracks.