The University of Kentucky (UK) will be renovating existing space to create a new equine surfaces and safety laboratory with the help of a $100,000 donation from the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn. (NTRA) Charities. Director of UK Ag Equine Programs Mick Peterson will be overseeing the project.

Existing space within the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment will be renovated to create a laboratory for research on the safety of horse racing through surfaces. The research will be conducted by Peterson, who is a nationally known expert in surface safety, as well as a faculty member in the UK Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. Peterson has recently investigated track conditions at Santa Anita Park after an unusually high number of equine deaths.

UK has several projects that are currently funded but were space constrained. Real-time sensors of moisture levels for racing surfaces and of gait parameters were of interest, but previously, there wasn’t room to fully investigate the research. The same problem occurred for the research on the shoeing effects on swing phase joint loading. Inadequate space limited the ability to study the subsurface design of racetracks, as well as the effect of harrowing, or dragging, on the formation of the racetrack hardpan. 

It is unclear whether the newly renovated space will include a full track for testing. Additionally, new tools for the measurement of cushion depth on dirt racetracks and moisture and penetration resistance on turf tracks have been stunted by the lack of space to perform tests as well. The hope is that with the implementation of the new lab that testing can occur in all of these areas.

In addition to carrying on the current projects, the charitable donation has the potential to offer new areas of industry development with the renovation of this laboratory. Notable areas of research include the effect of a harrowed racing surface on optimal helmet design; the potential for new horseshoe designs to reduce loading rate for arteriosclerosis risk reduction; and the development of new sensors for fan engagement and handicapping data using “internet of things” technologies. 

“NTRA Charities is excited to support UK’s new Equine Surfaces and Safety Research Laboratory, which through its important work will absolutely lead to a safer racing environment for our human and equine athletes,” says Alex Waldrop, NTRA president and chief executive officer (CEO). 

The goal of the new laboratory is to make large strides in the science of creating and maintaining safer racetrack surfaces. From this, the valuable data will be made available for the next generation of those who maintain the tracks, further educating and preventing equine injuries. The overarching goal is to make racing surfaces as safe as possible, says Waldrop. 

In addition to furthering the research that would benefit the racing world, the laboratory will also engage undergraduate and graduate students in meaningful research, allowing them to learn from and participate in impactful scientific findings. 

The UK recognized the need to expand its research facilities in 2016 and recruited Peterson to be a part of it with his wealth of knowledge. After joining the team, Peterson relocated the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory (RSTL) to Kentucky. 

“NTRA has reviewed variations on this proposal for nearly two years, and we are pleased to see it go forward,” says Steve Koch, executive director of NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance. “The job does not end here. We anticipate continued calls on the industry to fund specific surfaces research projects undertaken in this new laboratory.”

Dean Nancy Cox is appreciative of the gift that “allows us to do more important research to assist Thoroughbred racing and create a pipeline of experts to serve racetrack safety,” she says.

Peterson has directed RSTL in testing dirt, turf and synthetic racing surface materials. This has been effective in boosting the welfare and safety that RSTL is committed to provide. Over 70 different racing and training tracks have undergone testing. RSTL is also involved with equipment development from the lab, including riding crop design assessment, testing maintenance equipment and performance tests of start gate and rail padding. 

The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) has been inspired by RSTL’s efforts and have expanded activities to arena surfaces testing. This includes large scale sample analysis that is only available in Sweden at the moment.

“This laboratory will allow us to do racetrack surfaces testing on a larger scale to permit us to replicate surface properties using maintenance equipment on the surfaces, which have been observed on racetracks, but are not well understood,” says Peterson. “Understanding racetrack maintenance is key to providing a consistent racing surface regardless of weather.”

The renovations are expected to begin by this summer, with the space being put to use for research within a few months.