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Making race tracks safer
If you could recreate and graphically visualize the forces of a horse’s hoof on a racetrack, would you be able to build or maintain a safer racetrack? With that safer racetrack, would you be able to reduce the rate of catastrophic injuries in the ultra-competitive world of Thoroughbred racing? Researchers at Colorado State University and the University of Maine are hoping to answer both those questions with a resounding yes, giving hope to those who want to help make the sport of horse racing safer for those doing the racing.
“When a catastrophic injury happens, it’s common practice to blame the race track,” said Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, Director of the Gail Holmes Equine Orthopaedic Research Center at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “We can look at statistics and see that different surfaces have different rates of injury but, until recently, we really couldn’t understand what was happening as a horse was running on a particular track, and how that might affect the incidence of injury.”
Three types of tracks are used in horse racing: turf, dirt and synthetic. Turf tracks have the lowest rates of catastrophic injuries with studies in the United Kingdom showing an incidence of 0.38 deaths/1000 starts (29 out of 77,059). In the United States, recent studies reported 1.47 deaths/1,000 starts on synthetics and 2.07 deaths/1,000 on dirt tracks.
“We know that synthetic tracks can help reduce the rates of catastrophic injuries, but they are not reducing the rates as much as hoped,” said Dr. McIlwraith. “Race track managers initially thought that synthetic tracks were a panacea – no maintenance, no problem in the rain, safe for training, and expected decreased injury rates. Overall, these rates have come down, but not as drastically as promised.”
Part of the problem with synthetic tracks is that most were developed in England, or the English climate. The systems are highly specialized, down to the size of the grains of sand, and attention to installation is critical. Making the move to the United States proved somewhat problematic for the synthetic tracks. Sand grains were variable in size, components degraded with UV exposure, and high temperatures melted the wax in the synthetic track creating instability and uncertainty regarding performance.“
In 2000, Dr. Mick Peterson from the University of Maine and I began working together to develop a system that would replicate the loading of a hoof on the track,” said Dr. McIlwraith. “Previous track measurement systems have used some type of light-weight drop to measure the vertical component of the horse’s hoof. A second and equally important element is the loading during the motion of the horse that is horizontal; this depends on the shear strength of the track surface. The machine sees the track the way a horse’s hoof does.”
Dr. Peterson, a Professor of Engineering, and Dr. McIlwraith developed tests that would reproduce the loads and speeds of a horse’s hoofs at a gallop and measure the response on a small surface area. The hoof-shaped impactor reproduces the hoof velocity in vertical and horizontal directions and the effect of mass at the moment of impact at a gallop. Sensors on the device record the loads and decelerations on impact with the ground. The system measures the effect of the deeper track layers on the impact load on the hoof. Dr. McIlwraith noted that race track managers want to keep their tracks safe and are eager for the data and training to help them do just that.“
Using this system and another designed to measure the base of the dirt or synthetic race track in terms of slope and irregularity (using Doppler radar), we hope to bring testing mechanisms to the track to evaluate track conditions objectively,” said Dr. McIlwraith. “With additional data, we will be able to characterize the ideal race track and hope to see a correlating decrease in the number of injuries from race track surface. Of course, there are other areas we are investigating at the Equine Orthopaedic Center, including genetic susceptibility to injury, early diagnosis of bone and joint disease, novel therapies, conformation, and rehabilitation after injury.”
Race track surface research at the Equine Orthopaedic Center is sponsored in part by the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and the American Quarter Horse Foundation. In June, Drs. McIlwraith and Peterson were awarded the second annual Elastikon Equine Research Award, funded through a grant made by Johnson & Johnson Consumer Products Company to Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, for their research designed to enhance the safety of race tracks. Dr. McIlwraith, who also holds the Barbara Cox Anthony University Endowed Chair in Orthopaedics at CSU, participated in the Grayson-Jockey Club Foundation sponsored Welfare Safety Summits in October 2006 and March 2008. He also serves as Chair of the Subcommittee on Race Track Surfaces. In June 2008, Dr. McIlwraith testified before Congress during a special hearing prompted by the death of Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby.
“Race track surface performance is just one component of making horse racing safer for all horses,” said Dr. McIlwraith, who also has received funding from the American Quarter Horse Association for race track research. “More than anything, we want to see a significant decrease in the number of injuries and deaths, and we think proper investigations into and recommendations on track quality, along with establishing performance standards, will help to make that happen.”