After dozens of racehorse deaths, new Kentucky lab will drill into safety of racing

Horse racing fatalities in Kentucky increase significantly

Statistics on Kentucky horse racing fatalities in 2018.
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Statistics on Kentucky horse racing fatalities in 2018.

After 23 horses died at Santa Anita this year and an unprecedented 36 died in Kentucky last year, the horse industry is investing money in track surface research.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association announced Wednesday a $100,000 grant to the University of Kentucky, for Mick Peterson, director of the UK Ag Equine Programs. Peterson, nationally recognized as an expert in racetrack surfaces, will use the money to create the NTRA Charities Equine Surfaces and Safety Laboratory.

NTRA president and CEO Alex Waldrop said in a statement the lab “will absolutely lead to a safer racing environment for our human and equine athletes.”

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It’s unclear exactly what caused the spikes in racehorse deaths; Peterson declared the Santa Anita track safe after examining it earlier this year but horses continued to break down. There have been no direct indications of racetrack problems in the fatal breakdowns in Kentucky either, although exceptionally rainy weather is a possible factor in both states.

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“The UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment is committed to our signature equine industry in all ways,” said Nancy Cox, dean of the college, in a news release. “In particular, we are dedicated to all aspects of safety in our sport. This gift allows us to do important research to assist Thoroughbred racing and to create a pipeline of experts to serve racetrack safety.”

UK recruited Peterson in 2016 and he relocated his Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory to Kentucky. The lab has tested more than 70 racing and training tracks of a variety of surfaces and has been involved in riding crop design assessment and other safety checks. The lab also inspired the sport horse world to similar efforts testing arena surfaces.

The new lab “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,” Peterson said. “Understanding racetrack maintenance is key to providing a consistent racing surface regardless of the weather.”

Cox said that the new lab, which will be in the Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department, also will have access to a training track where Peterson can test his hypotheses.

“We really want our equine programs at UK to be recognized for our contributions to the horse industry with the best safety information for both horse and rider,” she said.