Taking the Lead: Keeneland, NTRA Partner with UK to Ensure Horses' Safety

Photo by Mark Pearson

By Molly Williamson

For the Keeneland Association and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) Charities, investing in two new University of Kentucky laboratories was a simple decision. Safety – of both the horse and human athletes – is a primary concern for the horse industry, especially with recent events at Santa Anita Park, a racetrack in Southern California. 

As the epicenter of the horse industry, Kentucky-based equine organizations want to be at the forefront of equine safety, and UK has taken the lead. In the last four years, UK has recruited two internationally-recognized researchers to establish laboratories focused on safety. As the Keeneland Endowed Chair in Equine Veterinary Science, Scott Stanley '88 AFE, '92 MED is leading a new commercial testing laboratory in connection with the U.S. Equestrian Federation that will focus on developing tests to detect performance-enhancing drugs in show and race horses. Michael “Mick” Peterson is creating the NTRA Charities Equine Surfaces and Safety Laboratory that will better inform racetrack superintendents about how to monitor and adjust the racetrack composition to ensure the horses and jockeys are safe no matter the weather conditions. 

Both labs are housed in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. The endowed position will be supplemented by Keeneland’s recent $1.3 million gift, which will further Stanley’s research. Peterson’s lab will be supported by NTRA’s recent $100,000 gift, money the organization set aside long ago for surface safety research.

Hiring Stanley and Peterson is a move horse industry leaders say shows the commitment UK has to the future of the horse industry and its economic impact on the state. It also solidifies UK’s place as a leader in equine research.

“The most important thing to Keeneland is the health and well-being of its equine athletes,” says Bill Thomason ’77 ’78 BE, president and chief executive officer of Keeneland. “To protect the health and well-being of our athletes and the integrity of the sport, we need vital research that will impact a broad range of equine competition. As the horse capital of the world, Central Kentucky should lead those efforts, and we are proud to partner with the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s Gluck Equine Research Center to develop this center of excellence in equine drug research and testing.”

Nearly 55 percent of all North American thoroughbreds are sired by Kentucky stallions, and 37.4 percent of North American thoroughbreds come from Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Equine Education Project. The horse industry is an economic driver, providing an estimated annual $3 billion impact and 80,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to the 2012 Kentucky Equine Survey conducted by UK Ag Equine Programs.

“The UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment is committed to our signature equine industry in all ways,” Dean Nancy Cox says. “In particular, we are dedicated to all aspects of safety in our sport. These gifts allow us to do important research to assist thoroughbred racing and to create a pipeline of experts to serve racetrack safety and to monitor equine pharmacology.” 

Detecting performance-enhancing drugs

In May, Keeneland committed an additional $1.3 million to support the Keeneland Endowed Chair in Equine Veterinary Science, increasing the position’s fund to $3 million to provide more funds for equine medicine research, including pharmacology and toxicology. Stanley, a two-time UK graduate, was awarded the position 
in 2019. 

An internationally recognized researcher, Stanley’s research focuses on equine pharmacology and toxicology. He is creating an Equine Biological Passport that will follow horses throughout their careers. Similar to a medical record, the passport logs the results of each drug test performed on a horse, so each horse has a comprehensive pharmacology history on file. It is also an indirect means of detecting future drugs that were inappropriately used in racehorses and show horses, Stanley says. 

Stanley’s lab will also develop more sophisticated drug tests. Currently, horses can be given a drug–slow release compounds–that continues to affect a horse’s performance long after the drug stops showing up in modern tests. Stanley's anti-doping research will develop more comprehensive tests that can detect drugs that were given to a horse months ago.

“The endowment allows us to establish long-term funding,” Stanley says. “With a grant, once the study is over, the funding is gone. The endowment allows us to work toward the future, not just focus on one program. We can anticipate the industry’s needs and study future compounds. It also allows us to purchase the equipment and materials we need.”

Formerly a professor at University of California-Davis, Stanley returned to Lexington because it allowed him to be a part of collaborative research that studied all aspects of horse health and well-being. It also gave him more direct communication with people in the industry, including breeders, racetrack superintendents, jockey organizations and auction houses.

Stanley’s ability to interact with people at all levels of the racing industry is what enhances his research, Thomason says. He is innovative in the lab but he can communicate his findings to, and work with, people in the field.

“Dr. Stanley’s addition shows the commitment the University of Kentucky has to advancing the horse industry,” Thomason says. “We have worked with Dr. Stanley throughout his career and seen how his research has improved the safety of horses worldwide. His work is a natural fit with all of the other agricultural advances UK has. 

“UK is at the forefront of jockey safety, concussion protocols, immunology, disease and racetrack safety,” he says. “Its multifaceted approach to equine health and safety is critical to us, not only as a racing facility, but also as one of the largest thoroughbred sales facilities in the world.” 

Kentucky horses are the most sought after in the world, because of their sires, pedigrees and the way they have been raised, Thomason says. Keeneland sells horses to entities in more than 25 different countries, many of whom compete at the highest level and retire to sire foals all over the world.

Ensuring racetracks’ safety

Adding labs like Stanley’s and Peterson’s contribute to the global sustainability of the horse industry, says Steve Koch ’99 ’02 AFE, former executive director of the NTRA and now senior vice president of racing for the Stronach Group. He helped coordinate the $100,000 gift from the NTRA to his alma mater to support surface safety research.

“We produce a lot of wonderful horses in Kentucky, but without a market to sell them, Kentucky’s signature industry would not thrive,” Koch says. “The research Dr. Stanley and Dr. Peterson are doing is good for the horses, good for the jockeys, good for the Commonwealth and good for the industry.”

Racetrack safety is an especially hot topic after the Santa Anita deaths. Some of the problems stemmed from the racetrack’s inability to get current data about the racetrack’s composition and to make changes accordingly, says Alex Waldrop, NTRA president and chief executive officer. 

“Track conditions change hour by hour, moment by moment because of the weather,” Waldrop says. “A racetrack superintendent once told me that if we could run races inside a temperature-controlled building, we would have no problems. But we have to account for the sun, wind, rain and humidity by monitoring the track surface to determine if it is consistent and has the proper amount of water retention to protect the safety of the horses and jockeys.”

Track composition is Peterson’s specialty. Before arriving at UK in 2016, he directed the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory and has tested racetracks at 70 different facilities around the world. The industry-funded lab–which moved with Peterson to Lexington–examines racetrack surfaces, informing everything from design, safety and maintenance of natural and synthetic surfaces to the track’s impact on designing jockey helmets, horseshoes and sensors that can assist in providing a consistent surface for horses and riders. 

Using the renovated 4,000 square-foot space in the NTRA lab, Peterson is studying the layers in a racetrack– how they are impacted by maintenance equipment, how they retain moisture and how they can be engineered and maintained to ensure horses’ safety. He is examining dirt, synthetic and turf tracks and developing sensors that can give racetrack superintendents information about the racetrack’s surface.

“The new sensors will measure and help the racetrack superintendents control the consistency of the track,” says Peterson, director of UK Agriculture Equine Programs and professor in the department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. “We want to give more information to the superintendents, similar to how a doctor examines blood work and X-rays, so the superintendents can diagnose and address the problems.

“But, if we do not have the right people monitoring these sensors, the research is useless,” Peterson says. “We need people who can interpret the data, determine what information is relevant and then make adjustments to the track.” 

His research will help people working at horse racetracks, as well as those who maintain arenas for sport horses. The NTRA gift is allowing him to expand his efforts, include more students in his research and enhance his training efforts.

“We wanted to enable undergraduate and graduate students to benefit from Dr. Peterson’s leadership and knowledge, so they can become better researchers and racetrack superintendents,” Koch says. “It is a workforce development issue. We are a small industry with only a handful of racetrack superintendents. We need qualified, educated people operating our tracks and machinery. This research will dramatically improve the caliber of our racetrack operations.”

It also provides reassurance at a time the industry needs it, Waldrop says.

“The single biggest vulnerability we have in thoroughbred racing is our susceptibility to horse injury and fatality,” Waldrop says. “We want to reassure the public that we are doing everything we can to keep our horses and jockeys safe. Collecting and analyzing this data is instrumental to ensuring surface safety, and we are glad that we can jump-start this data collection and analysis effort.

“Improving the safety of our athletes in horse racing is critical to the growth and sustainability of our industry, and it is fitting that UK is leading these advances since the university is located in the heart of Central Kentucky, where so many of the world’s thoroughbreds are bred and raised,” Waldrop says. “This gift is not just an investment in UK, it is an investment in the economic health of the state of Kentucky. We are proud to partner with UK in this effort.” 

The Keeneland and NTRA gifts both benefit Kentucky Can: The 21st Century Campaign, UK’s comprehensive campaign focused on increasing opportunities for student success, funding innovative research, improving health care, strengthening our alumni network and supporting our athletic programs. Publicly announced in September 2018, the campaign aims to raise $2.1 billion, and UK has already surpassed the halfway point. As of June 30, 2019, UK had raised $1.2 billion for Kentucky Can.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Kentucky Alumni magazine.

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