Just over a year ago, the sight of Barbaro shattering his right
hind leg at the start of the 131st running of the Preakness sent up a
collective gasp heard coast to coast. The national vigil during the
colt's eight-month struggle to recover from his catastrophic injury
drew millions of fans, including many who knew little about horse
racing, but were captivated by his story.
However, for those who know horses and racing, the now
unforgettable image of Barbaro's catastrophic injury that ultimately
ended his life this past January was eerily familiar.
Those in the racing industry remember Ruffian, the equally
promising 3-year-old filly who similarly captured the hearts and minds
of Americans in 1975, only to break down at Belmont Park and be
euthanized. In the 1990 Breeder's Cup, another 3-year-old, Go for the
Wand, broke her front right foreleg and was put down.
Through the years, other catastrophic injuries only ended the
racing careers — not the lives -— of high-profile horses, as in the
case of Charismatic, who recovered in 1999 after breaking his left
Then there are the untold numbers of local racers like Miss Pretty
Promises, a 2-year-old quarter horse who crossed the finish line in
seventh place at Retama Park, Texas, in April 2006, only to crumple to
the ground with both front legs broken, as detailed by the San Antonio
No nationwide statistics are kept on the number of racehorses each
year that sustain catastrophic injuries, but most industry officials
and veterinarians agree that the rate is low. The number often cited:
fewer than two fatal injuries in 1,000 race starts.
But all agree that's two horses too many.
"Since World War II, there's been a consistent decline in the
number of starts per horse and the lengths of race horses' careers,"
says biomechanics expert Michael Peterson, who uses engineering
principles to understand the dynamics of animal motion. "The horses
are facing multifactorial risk — from genetics and training protocols
to an emphasis on racing younger and the priorities of the racing
business. Tracks have improved, but not enough. But if we can take
tracks out of the equation, we can then focus on other concerns. The
goal is to keep horses and jockeys safe."
In 1994, an industry panel called for a quantitative evaluation of
racetracks. The panel, which included noted horse trainer Richard
Mandela, and track superintendents Dennis Moore of Hollywood Park and
Steve Wood of Del Mar and Santa Anita parks in California, turned for
answers to veterinarian and equine orthopedic surgeon C. Wayne McIlwraith, who directs the Orthopedic Research Center at Colorado
State University, and Peterson, a researcher at Colorado State before
joining the University of Maine mechanical engineering faculty in
Peterson and Colorado State graduate students conducted preliminary
investigations of the effects of track surfaces on joint loading or
stress in racehorses. As a horse runs, the pressure on the legs
depends on how fast the hoof stops, how hard the landing is and how
much resistance is present as the animal pushes off.
Traditionally, it's believed that a track that is too soft causes
bowed tendons, while an extremely hard track results in broken legs.
Today, Peterson and others are saying disease and injury risks are
"When the leg on a horse breaks, it is not usually just because of
a bad step but because of accumulated damage to joints and bone," he
says. "That suggests that any solution to joint disease has to start
from the beginning of the horse's life."
Peterson began focusing on a track's shear strength — the pressure
of the surface on the front and back of the hoof as the horse stops
and pushes off. If the shear strength is low on a "cuppy" track, the
hoof slips as the horse propels itself forward, risking tendon and
soft tissue injury. If the shear force is high, the pressure on the
hoof causes increased horizontal stress on the bones in the hind legs
producing the huge forces needed to propel the racehorse at a gallop.
Both the hardness and shear strength of the track directly affect
the forces exerted on the horse as it runs, says Peterson.
Understanding these forces and keeping them in an acceptable range are
essential to injury prevention.
The more Peterson talked to veterinarians and track
superintendents, the more he recognized the need for a device to
measure variations between tracks, including deviations beneath the
well-groomed surfaces. Peterson was particularly concerned about deep
compaction — hard spots related to that "proverbial bad step."
Peterson invented a biomechanical hoof device for impact testing on
racetracks. Designed to duplicate the force produced by a running
horse, the mechanism measures the vertical and horizontal
accelerations, and vertical force on the hoof hitting the soil. With
it, Peterson can test the response of the track to the impact of a
horse hoof during a race and measure the forces placed on a horse's
With data generated by the robotic device, horse owners and
trainers, jockeys and track managers can make more informed decisions
about racing on certain surfaces and in particular conditions.
In 2004 at tracks in California, Peterson used the device to find
inconsistencies among surfaces at different tracks, as well as
something no one expected — deviations in individual tracks. Along one
backstretch, the vertical stiffness of the track "dropped off the
"It was so much softer," Peterson says. "It would be like the
difference between running on grass and then on a street. In no way
can that be good for a horse."
Soil samples confirmed uniform surface composition, but
ground-penetrating radar revealed that 8 inches down, an underground
stream or poor drainage had caused a washout. After the track bed was
reconstructed, the backstretch was retested and found consistent.
"What I like about that is we found the problem before trainers and
veterinarians found bowed tendons in the horses. That's the goal. We
don't want to be waiting to have a backlog of injuries for the track
veterinarian before determining if it's a track-related problem," says
Peterson, who has had inquires about his testing system from as far
away as Australia, where there is interest in standardizing tracks.
Last October, Peterson was among the national experts and prominent
members of the thoroughbred breeding and racing industry who gathered
in Lexington, Ky., for a Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit,
sponsored by Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and the Jockey
Club. The goal was to identify critical issues affecting horse health
and longevity of racing careers, and to develop a strategic plan to
address those problems.
Participants focused on issues related to the decline in the racing
careers of thoroughbreds in the last 50 years in terms of fewer years
raced and annual starts. Two of the resulting six recommendations from
the summit deal with injury monitoring, including development of a
national injury reporting and surveillance system. Another
recommendation calls for safer racing surfaces throughout the country,
gathering data to ultimately implement a certification and
standardization process for racing surfaces.
Implementation of the recommendations by industry stakeholders or
regulatory agencies is purely voluntary.
The Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit was held at Keeneland,
a horse racing complex that was among the first in North America to
install a Polytrack surface made of silica sand, fibers, recycled
rubber and wax. Keeneland's fall race meet last October was the first
conducted on the new track.
This past March, Del Mar Park in California also announced the debut
of its new Polytrack racing surface for this season, making it the
fourth horse racing facility in the country to replace dirt or turf
with engineered material. The California Horse Racing Board has
mandated that all major tracks in that state have synthetic tracks
installed by the end of this year.
Installation of the new surfaces, costing upward of $10 million per
track, has led to improvements in base layers, reducing variations
around a track from 24 percent to 7 percent, Peterson says. And at
least initially, that has translated into fewer catastrophic injuries.
Nevertheless, Peterson worries about the "synthetic movement," which
has its roots in Europe and England. In particular, he is concerned
how this surface is going to hold up under different environmental
conditions and uses. Like traditional dirt horse tracks used for
generations yet largely untested, the new synthetic surfaces leave
engineers like Peterson with more questions than answers.
"In England, these tracks are used for racing only," Peterson says.
"But you take Del Mar, where between 5 and 10 a.m., there can be as
many as 2,000 horses that have worked out down the straightaway."
In addition, says Peterson, the synthetic track movement has divided
the horse racing industry into the "haves and have nots."
"I'm worried about those facilities that can't afford $10 million
tracks to keep horses sound," he says. "That's a huge challenge for
fairgrounds and other smaller tracks without the big stakes appeal."
Research on how to test and maintain the synthetic tracks in the
United States for the optimum safety of horses and jockeys could be
the next set of questions Peterson tackles. He also is now looking for
a dirt horse track where he can spend a season collecting data.
"I'd like to see standard maintenance protocols according to the
compositions of the tracks," he says, "including responses to changes
in temperature and moisture content."
by Margaret Nagle
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