WKYT Investigates | Testing race track safety in the horse racing capital

A UK professor is at the center of an effort to establish more consistency among racing surfaces.
A UK professor is at the center of an effort to establish more consistency among racing surfaces.
Published: Jul. 6, 2020 at 1:24 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 6, 2020 at 1:30 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - The eyes of horse racing fans are shifting back here to the Bluegrass.

Keeneland opens Wednesday for a short summer meet, and a much-delayed Kentucky Derby is coming up in September at Churchill Downs.

But in recent months, particularly before the coronavirus pandemic upended nearly all facets of life, the sport has remained under a lot of scrutiny over the safety of its thoroughbred athletes.

Lawmakers are extending oversight and the industry is making reforms, but addressing questions of safety is about more than meets the eye. It is about what meets the hoof, and one professor at the University of Kentucky is at the center of a major effort to ensure the safety of the surfaces on which horses run.

“It’s one of those situations where we started late, and we’ve managed to leap-frog other sports,” said Dr. Mick Peterson, a UK professor and racetrack safety director.

For the past 15 years, Peterson has worked to develop a series of protocols to test horse racing surfaces. He and his team at the Racing Surface Testing Laboratory monitor weather conditions, document everything done to the track and measure the track’s makeup, especially the moisture content.

"We approach the thoroughbred racing surface the same way you approach taking off in an aircraft," Dr. Peterson said. "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."

Peterson says their protocols are now used at 14 top race tracks across the country, and industry experts want more to sign on. The goal is consistency on the track from coast to coast, day to day, even race to race.

“That’s the key thing is try to keep it as consistent as possible, so the horse and the jockey both know what they’re going to be running on and how it’s going to behave,” testing engineer Andrew Jackson explained to WKYT’s Garrett Wymer as Jackson and fellow engineer Kayla Danicki ran tests on a track sample.

And it is not just an experiment. The team does baseline testing, and tests at tracks around the country - including Keeneland - using what they find to monitor the racing surface and make adjustments.

That science is more important now than ever, experts say. No one wants a repeat of what happened at Santa Anita last year, with dozens of horse deaths during the California track's winter meet since the day after Christmas 2018.

“We are under more scrutiny than we’ve ever been,” said Alex Waldrop, president/CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “So we have to step up. We have to do more.”

Leaders with the NTRA, which is also based in Lexington, say what Dr. Peterson is doing can help prevent problems on the track. They are invested in it - figuratively and financially, including a $100,000 grant to equip a lab in a space at UK’s College of Agriculture, which will eventually include a 45x45 test arena.

"Maintaining a track surface that's safe and fair is essential," Waldrop said. "It's not optional any longer."

Other groups - including The Jockey Club - are also pouring money into Peterson’s research and work across the country. Peterson said an infusion of cash from The Jockey Club for new equipment helped them keep their work going amid the coronavirus pandemic.

On the late winter day that WKYT witnessed the work inside the testing lab at UK, engineers were doing bio-mechanical surface testing using a machine known as the OBST, which replicates the front leg of a horse at full gallop.

"It's all the loads and speeds that you'd see in a horse, the hoof coming down, hitting and sliding," Peterson explained.

The team also conducts the same tests on location at tracks and also performs ground-penetrating radar to map out what it looks like below the racing surface.

With the OBST - like a race itself - there is a lot of work ahead of time with just a moment of action. But the payoff is troves of data - not to replace the knowledge that comes with years of tradition, but to add to it with technology.

"What we really want to do," Peterson said, "is supplement that expertise with additional information."

The lab has been open even as the sport slowed down in some places for a number of weeks as a result of coronavirus restrictions.

Logistical changes have made things for more challenging for the engineers, Peterson said, but their mission remains just as important as they try to move the sport forward.

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