Long before thoroughbred race horses Barbaro and Eight Belles suffered career- and life-ending fractures in 2006 and 2008, respectively, a University of Maine engineering professor was already saddled up and well into his race to develop a system to measure track safety.

Michael “Mick” Peterson and former Colorado State University colleague Dr. Wayne McIlwraith have been researching thoroughbred and harness racing horses, tracks and horse injuries in hopes of creating a biomechanical machine to test tracks for the last 12 years.

It took six years, but the research led to the creation of their mobile robotic hoof tester that uses ground-penetrating radar to scan natural and artificial tracks for possible defects and trouble spots. The hope — besides the machine becoming to the racing industry what the Zamboni is to hockey rinks — is that the tester can help eliminate surface problems and thereby make surfaces more uniform and safer.

“The problem is this is a 30-billion-dollar industry with no standards for track surfaces, and this is a standard to measure horse track surfaces, not just the material they’re made out of,” said Peterson. “The dream here is to have some kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for racetrack surfaces.

“Ideally, we’ll have numbers posted every morning at every track and the riders and owners will have something to look at and know it’s a safe track.”

How significant is Peterson’s machine?

“I think it is probably one of the most important developments in the last 50 years in helping the animals be safe and not compromising the events or the safety of horses,” said Ed Bowen, president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. “I think it’s a big deal and I think over the next 10 years, most of the major tracks will go to some kind of synthetic surfaces, so this could have a significant impact.”

Hoofing it into the garage

The Biomechanical Hoof Tester resulted from a separate study Peterson and McIlwraith were working on in 1996 involving the degradation of joints in horses.

“I was doing the imaging work on that and I asked why there are no standards for surfaces like you have for pro football and soccer fields, so we wrote another proposal for a research study,” McIlwraith explained. “Mick’s initial machine was built literally in a garage.”

McIlwraith said once they started brainstorming the idea of a machine that would actually mimic the stride of a horse, Peterson took over.

“We wanted to rate a track by shear strength or horizontal grab, so he developed a machine entirely on his own, and he was someone who basically didn’t know his way around horses at all,” McIlwraith said.

The device drops down to the ground at the same angle (8 degrees) and velocity (approximately 70 mph) as the front hoof of a horse at full gallop.

According to Peterson, a hoof experiences deceleration in a big way — 80 to 100 G’s — as it slows from 70 mph to a momentary stop to contact the ground and bear the horse’s weight. He says fighter pilots, by comparison, experience 6-9 G’s during supersonic flight.

If that doesn’t put the stresses a horse’s delicate framework of bones undergoes into perspective, consider this: Some veterinarians and track superintendents estimate that a hoof strikes the ground with 5,000 pounds of pressure on a bone the size of a human wrist.

“The challenge is the horse is a big, fast animal, but it has to have a soft surface to race on,” Peterson said.

Peterson’s robot has shown that different track layers are crucial to different phases of the horse’s gait. A 3-inch “cushion” of soft dirt slows entry down and lessens the load hooves bear by as much as 50 percent.

Peterson’s research and experimentation showed him horses can be affected by conditions up to a foot below the racing surface. If the track’s underlying layers can’t withstand the stress from the horse’s reversal of acceleration, the hooves slip and can’t propel, and the horse must work even harder to push itself forward. This causes enormous stress on the animal’s forelimbs.

“We needed to find a way to objectively evaluate a racetrack because whenever a horse was injured, a horseman blamed the track. There are other reasons for catastrophic injury and they were in denial about them,” McIlwraith said. “We wanted to find some way to help the industry with a consistent method for measuring surfaces.”

Peterson said there have been basically two major problems with the machine.

“The first was in the initial design, and so we had to use high speed video to study horse strides,” he explained. “The second, and the real struggle since is keeping the machine in one piece. It’s hitting over and over with 1,000 pounds of force and parts keep breaking.”

Peterson is currently working on a “third generation” hoof device in his garage.

“I struggle like everyone else to find time to devote to this project and we’re literally working on a shoestring budget,” the 46-year-old Peterson said. “I’m probably less a researcher than more of a technician who likes to solve problems.”

A technician who gets by with a little help from his friends, like Jimmy Alexander, owner of Alexander Welding and Machine of Greenfield.

“The biggest problem with it right now is it takes a geek with knowledge and a bunch of tools to keep the thing running,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of help from Jimmy, who makes equipment for the paper industry and has his own fabrication shop.”

Getting things on track

For the last few years, Peterson has been traveling all over the country to test his machine and the tracks while also evaluating track surfaces at well-known facilities such as Hollywood Park, Santa Anita and Del Mar thoroughbred track in California.

He has also been to tracks in New York, Illinois, Kentucky, Washington and Ontario, Canada.

“We’re at the point where we need to be able to validate our test results, so we have to keep track of injuries and correlate that with the surfaces they were running on when injured,” McIlwraith said. “The key to everything is prevention and we think we can make a track a lot better with Mick’s machine.”

McIlwraith said he thinks they’re a year or two away.

“We’ll have enough data then to prove that improved track maintenance has more than a negligible effect on injuries,” he said.

Peterson, who lives in Orono with wife Mary Jane and children John (age 12) and Margaret (9), was in New Mexico from Dec. 26 through Jan. 9.

“I’ve been doing a lot of stuff for the Grayson-Jockey Club. I did a dirt track in New Mexico after being at Hollywood Park,” Peterson said. “I probably have months worth of data to sift through.”

The research already done and the creation of the machine made Peterson and McIlwraith’s project a virtual no-brainer when it came time for the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation to award its annual Elastikon Equine Research Award last June.

“They are giving us the scientific weapons we can use to tackle this problem,” Bowen said. “It will be even more important as we develop artificial surfaces just as other sports have used artificial synthetic surfaces.”

Already, many tracks have installed artificial surfaces such as Polytrack, a mixture of recycled polypropylene fibers, recycled rubber and silica sand with a wax coating; Cushion Track, a material made of paraffin wax, synthetic fibers and carpet fibers; and Tapeta, a wax-coated mixture of sand, rubber and fiber.

“There’s a lot of heated controversy over synthetics, and we’ve still got all kinds of questions about materials themselves and risks to the horses, but I’m ironing things out and fine-tuning things and this works for dirt and synthetic surfaces,” Peterson said. “For the long term we’re going to have to be able to handle both.

“Most harness tracks are dirt tracks. Both have a lot of the same issues. They have different injuries, but the track issues are almost identical.”

Searching for well-heeled support

Even with the $43,000 Elastikon award and $50,000 from the American Quarter Horse Association, along with various grants and funding from the Southern California Equine Foundation, the Oaktree Foundation of Santa Anita, Calif., and Martin Collins Surfaces & Footings, Peterson has had to sink his own money into developing his biomechanical hoof.

“Even now, it’s still a work in progress, mainly because we haven’t got a lot of funding. That’s the hard part and it’s been a challenge,” said Peterson. “I did get a small grant from the Maine Technologies Institute that’s helped this along. Other than that, it’s been a self-funded project.”

How much self-funding?

“Uh, I can’t tell you that because my wife might find out and then I’d be dead meat,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Peterson’s ideal scenario involves a big company or business stepping forward to totally underwrite his project.

“I estimate it costs about $200,000 to build a machine, and it’d take about 18 months from the time someone stepped forward to fully fund it to perfect it,” Peterson said. “At that point we could pilot it on a couple of tracks and then mass produce it.”

Peterson is optimistic more funding will materialize in the not-too-distant future but preferred not to cite specifics.

“We’re trying to form a consortium to provide funding for the project and the machine, and there is a pending announcement about someone becoming significantly involved in funding this,” he said.