The University of Kentucky hosted the fourth and final session of its Equine Research Showcase Feb. 9. Presenting sponsors included BET, Kentucky Performance Products, McCauley’s, Merck, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital and Tribute Equine Nutrition. The session included several 10-minute mini presentations about hot topics in the area of equine research.

During one of those talks, Mick Peterson, PhD, professor in UK’s Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, gave a short talk on the Maintenance Quality System (MQS). The MQS was developed for the evaluation of Thoroughbred racetracks with some aspects having been adapted by his collaborators to evaluate other equine performance surfaces. The MQS has three phases analogous to the monitoring procedures in commercial airlines: flight certification, pre-flight inspection and a black box data recorder.

“We’re really borrowing the ideas that they use in an aircraft, because like an aircraft, the racing surface is a safety critical system that you use day in and day out. It is expected to be perfect every day,” Peterson said.

The MQS is managed by an independent non-profit laboratory which was also founded by Peterson, the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory (RSTL). Peterson described the goal of his lab at UK as both developing automation to improve the quality of the data collected and to learn how to respond to the data collected in order to improve track safety for the benefit of the horse and rider.

“There was a significant gift from The Jockey Club to RSTL that has focused on the pre-flight inspection. The pre-flight inspection stage in the process reduces variability between tracks, which we’ve shown to be critical,” Peterson said.

Another research goal Peterson described is the need for a better black box data recorder, which will include real time data collected from the track and depicted on a mesh network of track coordinates.

“We’re really borrowing the ideas that they use in an aircraft, because like an aircraft, the racing surface is a safety critical system that you use day in and day out. It is expected to be perfect every day.”

When describing the MQS, Peterson broke it down into three stages. The first is design documentation and setup. For example, some equipment has different names in different locations. There is also a need to document a target composition for the tracks that has been developed over time and experience. Additionally, the geometry of the track is critically important as well, because if done incorrectly, the transition horses have to make from the turns to the straights can be dangerous as they change leads. The tracks also should optimally have a meteorological grade weather monitoring station at the track.

Peterson described what is included in the documentation when a track is evaluated, including factors like turf species, moisture targets and consistency, as well as standard operating procedures for equipment that goes on all three surfaces, dirt, turf and synthetic.

“This is the flight certification, before we think a track should be used, this should be documented so that everyone who goes to the track or works at the track understands the basic approach to maintenance of the surface,” Peterson said.

Peterson also explained that the racing surface seasonal test consists of ground penetrating radar to inspect the base, biomechanical surface testing to make sure the mechanical properties of the track are similar and overall testing composition to compare it to those targets that are set in phase one. He compared this to the preflight inspection, and if tracks do it early enough before the race meet they have enough time to fix any issues that are needed to help make the track both more consistent for the particular surface and similar to other tracks where horses may ship in from.

“This part of the Maintenance Quality System has been dramatically altered by The Jockey Club gift. It was announced at the 2019 Jockey Club Round Table and consists of expensive new equipment for testing the track and an updated database. The gift allows us to position equipment around the United States and be much more efficient in our pre-race meet testing,” Peterson said.

The third stage of the MQS is daily track monitoring and measurements. This stage includes logging the equipment that goes out on the track, as well as measuring the cushion depth and moisture. He explained that this is one of the most difficult aspects, but also one of the most important parts of the MQS, comparing it to the dashboard of the aircraft, or the “black box,” as everything that happens is recorded and can be looked back upon.

Peterson described the measurement of moisture and cushion depth as two of the most basic, but also the most time-consuming, parameters. Many of the leading tracks have been willing to commit the resources to do these tests, including Keeneland, NYRA tracks, Del Mar, Santa Anita, Churchill Downs and Oaklawn. It is a large commitment for tracks to commit labor to this daily measurement and the human element can compromise data quality. There is a need for automation of this task but there is a lot of equipment on the track and the racetrack covers a lot of area.

“Our newest approach to this, then, is using a mesh network. This is the type of network that is used in the industrial internet of things, and the advantage of this is that it allows communication between equipment and nodes located on the track. The goal is to put low-cost sensors at different locations and on the equipment for tracking and monitoring. This will give us the ability for real time speed monitoring of the equipment, and most importantly, real time moisture sensing,” Peterson said.

Testing of the sensors will be ongoing this spring both at Keeneland and the NTRA Equine Surfaces and Safety Laboratory on the UK campus.