PORTLAND (AP) – A biomechanical engineer at the University of Maine is working to make the nation’s racetracks safer for the thoroughbred horses that run on them.

Professor Michael “Mick” Peterson’s tools are radar and a robotic metal hoof that mimics a horse’s impact at 2,000 pounds of force, enabling him to detect subtle variations in both dirt and synthetic racetracks that can lay the groundwork for catastrophic injuries.

By gathering data on the impact and using radar to examine the track’s base layers, Peterson helps track superintendents identify and fix problem areas.

“He’s like a mad scientist. Really, really dedicated,” said Steve Wood, track superintendant at California’s Santa Anita Park. “It’s phenomenal. It’s one of the best things our business has encountered.”

Eventually, Peterson hopes to create a set of standards all track managers can use so that trainers who bring in a new horse will know what kind of track they’re dealing with.

A track with too much variation can be catastrophic to an animal galloping at speeds upwards of 30 mph. About two horses in every 1,000 starts experience fatal injuries, according to many estimates. More suffer soft-tissue injuries that can end their careers, but not their lives.

The injury to 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who shattered his right hind leg in the 2006 Preakness and was euthanized months later, has never been linked to an inconsistent track surface. But dozens of injuries to lower profile horses have.

“I don’t know if there’s actually been an increase in the raw numbers of injuries,” said Peterson. “But I do know there’s been an increase in one of these high-profile horses like Barbaro or Charismatic. Your heart comes up in your throat when you see those injuries.”

Peterson’s interest in the subject dates back to his work at Colorado State University with equine surgeon Wayne McIlwraith, who was studying the bone density of horses after relatively aggressive workouts.

Horses used in the study worked out on a treadmill. When Peterson asked if racetracks could be used, he was told that a consistent track was needed to provide accurate data.

Peterson went on to study variations in track surfaces and quickly became the national expert. He receives various grants for his work and is paid by racetracks that call him in.

In traveling to major tracks around the country, he ships his $60,000 worth of equipment and follows it by commercial airline.

“Tracks call him in when there’s problems,” said McIlwraith. “Sometimes it may be the track’s fault, sometimes it’s not. But instantly Mick has been the man of the hour to go and assist with these surfaces.”

Wood said Peterson has identified multiple problems at Santa Anita and other California tracks he manages.

“I take care of three tracks where he’s come in, found a problem and told me about it and I was able to correct it before a horse was injured,” said Wood. “I was even skeptical of his work at first. Now whenever I have a problem, he’s the man.”


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