Letter to the Editor: Wayne McIlwraith on a `Safe’ Track

As well documented by Bill Finley in the Week in Review, Kentucky Derby Day (as well as the week preceding it) was a very bad day for racing. “Efforts to end the sport picked up a lot of momentum Saturday and that’s a very scary thing,” is hard reading, but it is real.

What also scares me is what I read in Sundays TDN in the article “Two more equine deaths at Churchill Downs” was in the statement from HISA that said: “Dr Peterson has assured both HISA and Churchill Downs that the racing surface is safe.” I knew instantly that this was not true and emailed and later called to confirm such with Dr. Peterson. I first started working with Dr. Mick Peterson in the late 1990s when he asked me to be on a committee for one of his engineering graduate students at Colorado State University (CSU). The student work led to a publication on racetrack surfaces which we published in 2000. We first published results research from racetrack surface testing in 2008 and we co-founded the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory in 2009. I was then, and still am, an equine orthopaedic surgeon and was also the Founding Director of the Orthopaedic Research Center at CSU. I also was devoid of expertise in engineering and remain so, but was very interested in getting objective data and clarification of the role of racetrack surface in the spectrum of factors that contribute to misculoskeletal injury. When I was approached by Dr Peterson, I also had a consulting referral surgical practice in Southern California (retired from that recently after 40 years) and thought, albeit it naively, that perhaps we could verify a racetrack as “safe” with this research.  However, while the methods developed by Dr Peterson’s team are now the basis of International standards and the subject of more than 25 publications on racetrack and arena surfaces, the ability to certify a track as “safe” remains elusive.

Dr. Peterson was indeed engaged by both Churchill Downs and HISA to examine the track with his usual protocol that makes measurements to fit within the benchmarks (and they did), however, those benchmarks are not capable of saying a racetrack has zero contribution to risk nor does it evaluate other rick factors to musculoskeletal injury. The offending sentence in the HISA press release is at best an unforced error and, at worst, a lie. I can only presume Dr. Sue Stover, an expert in her own right on this topic and Head of HISA Safety Committee, was never consulted before the release and I know Dr. Peterson was not. While I think this is innocent incompetence, it does come across as throwing Dr. Peterson under the bus. We have enough vultures circling that we cannot afford to turn on each other, albeit inadvertently. In full transparency, I am a supporter of HISA; I was incoming President of the AAEP when AAEP hosted the Summit that led to the formation of RMTC. The main mission of RMTC was to get uniformity between States, which was not achieved, and I think HISA is the only way we can can achieve this. However, stubbing their toe as they did here opens up questions as to the ‘integrity’ word in the HISA title and demands a public apology and retraction in my opinion.


Wayne McIlwraith DVM, PhD


Editor’s Note: The TDN reached out to Dr. Mick Peterson to corroborate Dr. McIlwraith’s assertions. Here is what he had to say:

I would never say a surface is safe. We have a lot to learn about risk to horses and riders. The only way this will happen is through data, which HISA will be able to collect. In a few years, folks like Dr. Stover will be able to pull together race, vet and other data like tracks and, I hope, identify changes we can make to improve safety. In the meantime. a careful analysis of known risk factors can be done–just like they approach a plane crash or the train derailment in Pennsylvania.

It will result in a stronger role for HISA and a healthier sport if we are clear on what is possible.

–Dr. Mick Peterson


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