NTRA Q&A with Mick Peterson

Last week, it was announced that National Thoroughbred Racing Association Charities was gifting $100,000 to enable the University of Kentucky to further support equine surfaces and safety research under the direction of Mick Peterson, director of UK Ag Equine Programs. Peterson, a nationally known expert in surface safety and faculty member in the UK Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, recently sat down with the NTRA to provide greater insight on the new laboratory and what initiatives he hopes to see enacted as a result.

Q: How is this new lab different than the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory? What is some of the testing that will be able to take place now that hasn’t?

MP: “We really have three steps to this. One is, we need to make sure that the material is appropriate to be able to race on. That is what the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory does. There is a second entity that is an LLC that goes and certifies the racetrack before every race meet and so they’re basically going and the engineer works for me and we basically work on making sure that if the track is perfectly maintained that we will be able to have a consistent racing surface. But the third piece of this – which is the most difficult and where we have the biggest challenges – is making sure that the maintenance is appropriate to the weather and that the response every day is optimal for the safety of the surface. Right now, we are way behind on that third piece and that third piece is interesting because it includes both technology and people. Historically, we’ve been completely dependent on the superintendents and their expertise and their knowledge and their touch and feel and them paying attention to the weather and making judgement calls. Over the past few years we’ve begun especially with tracks like NYRA who has been in the lead, some of the Churchill tracks – especially Fair Grounds has just done an amazing job – Churchill Downs, Fair Grounds and Arlington and also Santa Anita have put a huge effort and a lot of labor into trying to make measurements every day. And that’s moisture measurements, documenting what they use for maintenance. The challenge is we don’t have the tools in place and depending on the track, we don’t have the people. It turns out at Fair Grounds, we have fantastic data just because (track Superintendent) Pedro (Zavala) is a young guy who thinks it’s exciting to keep track of this stuff. And he’s young and smart and pays attention. NYRA has put huge amounts of resources behind it and Dennis Moore at Santa Anita, he’s not a young guy but he thinks it’s important to make measurements and he’s been pushing this from the beginning. Right now we’re completely dependent on someone at the track doing that hard work and paying attention. The goal with this lab is not only to train more of those people who can do a good job of tracking the day to day maintenance but also to automate more of it. First and foremost of that is moisture. We had a small grant from the Kentucky Equine Drug Council for a moisture sensor that would go on the harrow. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. What we want is we want to get to the point where we know everything that is happening out on the track every race and we have people at the racetrack who know how to interpret that information and use it to make decisions. So the two pieces are technology and people and people that are tied to the technology.”

Q: Developing and training the next generation of industry scientists and modern track superintendents has been identified as a key goal. How will this new initiative help put that into action?

MP: “I have a colleague who started asking me questions because he had been at the University of Wisconsin and he said ‘So will there be horses in this lab?’ and I said ‘No’. And I thought he would be critical but he says ‘This is just like the milking lab at the University of Wisconsin’. They basically had put together and automatic milking lab to train the next generation of dairy farmers so that they understood how to use the equipment and how to maintain the equipment. And it wasn’t focused around the cow it was focused around the technology that was needed in order to support the cow. Given that he’s an agricultural engineer, it wasn’t surprising that he understood the model immediately and was like ‘Oh this is great’. So there is kind of a model in agriculture in this where….the animal can sometimes obscure the need to pull together the technology and understand the pieces. This lab is very much focused on understanding the pieces. There is another step to this where we need to tie into the horse and we need to be out there on tracks and surfaces. There are plenty of racetracks but there is not a lot of the technology.”

Q: This lab is something that has been in the works for years, correct?

MP: “I dug up a proposal that had portions of this that I gave to an industry group and one of the racetracks in 2011 – no, actually 2010. We’ve been talking about this and Wayne McIlwraith who has been working with me from the beginning, he is so tired of me talking about moisture content.”

Q: How key has the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance been – in particular with its in-field experiences across the country – in identifying a need for this space and moving this needle forward?

MP: “There is almost a 100 percent overlap between the people who have a commitment to the Safety and Integrity Alliance and the accreditation and the people who I’m working with. It’s the accredited tracks that really get it. And the accreditation process is a dynamic discussion that actually pushes the tracks to think about the technologies that they need and the human resources they need in order to produce the optimal racing surface and the optimal overall racing environment. So this goes back to the very beginning of the founding of the Safety and Integrity Alliance that this was an original partnership.”

Q: Some existing funded projects will move into the lab on day 1.  Safe to say, this is just the beginning and that there are numerous future projects need funding?

MP: “I was talking to somebody from one of the racetracks who is very innovative in thinking about ‘What is the next generation of racing’ and they asked for 10 projects to use as an example. I think I gave them about 15 or 20 the next morning. There are so many things we can be doing to support the industry and it starts out with we tend to talk a lot about main track and dirt track surfaces in general. There is a huge need right now to look at turf racing. There is so much pressure on the turf courses. The turf courses are small traditionally in the United States, they’re ovals on the inside and there just isn’t that much area. And if you talk to racing secretaries, they say ‘I do 6 turf races a day’. We do not have the infrastructure for that. So, some of the projects we are looking at are things like how we repair divots, how we look at watering on the turf track. Everything needs to be on the table in order to protect the integrity of the surfaces to protect the horses.”

Q: To put it mildly, funding the science seems like such a key intangible toward meaningful change.

MP: “And there are so many factors. I had a professor when I was in graduate school say that you are looking for solvable unsolved problems. And I look at surfaces and there are a lot of solvable unsolved problems. We’ve got some challenges – the risk to a rider when a horse clips heels.  You can train stewards, you can train jockeys, you can look at shoe design but some of that risk is inherent to racing. When we talk about an uneven turf surface or inconsistent moisture on the main track, we can fix that. And so, I think that’s one of the key takeaways on this.”

Q: Is there anything we haven’t asked you about this project that you’d like to bring to the surface?

MP: “I think one of the things is we’ve got some successes we can point to and I think the biggest one is the tracks we’ve been working with for a number of years, the materials on the track is more consistent. And we’re beginning to understand the degradation of the synthetic surfaces. We can’t fix it yet….but we’ve begun to understand that. And that’s John Bridge at the University of Washington Bothell. At this point in the laboratory, he can take a synthetic surface and produce a 10-year-old synthetic track surface in the course of a couple of weeks. What that means is if we understand how to do that, we can begin to understand how to slow that down or even just predict it. Because really on those synthetic surfaces, what the track owners want is don’t want to be surprised. So the real challenge we’ve got is to then not to say ‘We’ve got an okay answer, let’s quit’ but to learn more about what we’re doing and continue this translational so that we put it in the hands of people who are making decisions.”