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UD Research Institute tests jockey carts for safety

By Dave Larsen - Staff Writer

Before the horses charge out of the gate at the newly opened racino in Warren County and other harness racing tracks nationwide, their jockey carts must be certified as track-worthy by the University of Dayton Research Institute.

UDRI approves every new or altered sulky design before it can be manufactured and sold for use in U.S. Trotting Association races, which encompass most harness races in the nation, school officials said.

Technicians subject prototype sulkies — the light, two-wheeled cart jockeys ride on behind their horses — to a rigorous fatigue test that simulates eight years of turf-pounding race conditions in about four hours. The test ensures that new sulky models will meet a minimal durability of design for the safety of both drivers and horses, said David Allen, a chief electro-medical technician in UDRI’s Structures and Materials Evaluation group.

“There is no question that the sulkies are much safer today than they were prior to the institution of our regulations,” which include UDRI certification, said Kent Hastings, a liaison officer with the Columbus-based U.S. Trotting Association.

The USTA is a not-for-profit association that provides administrative, rule-making, licensing and breed registry services to its members. Hastings said there are 17 U.S. states with pari-mutuel wagering, in addition to 260 county fairs with harness racing, and 55 extended pari-mutuel tracks like the new Miami Valley Gaming complex located east of the Ohio 63 interchange at Interstate 75.

In the early 1990s, the USTA approached UD’s Research Institute to help develop standards for racing sulkies that included dynamic load and static load tests to make sure the carts wouldn’t break apart on the track, Hastings said. Previously, there was little regulation of sulky design or safety, he said.

More than 25 percent of the USTA sulkies on the market in the mid-1990s failed when they were subjected to UDRI’s laboratory fatigue test. “Those manufacturers then worked with UDRI to improve their models to make them safer,” Hastings said.

To develop the test, UD researchers rigged a laptop computer and gauges to record various levels of stress and load to the underside of a horse-drawn sulky that was then driven around the Montgomery County fairgrounds harness racing track in Dayton. The researchers then used that data to replicate those jarring shocks in a fatigue-test machine, now located at UD’s Shroyer Park Center.

“Every prototype that is going to be raced in North America will have to come through this testing rig,” Allen said. UDRI is the only site on the continent that certifies sulky frame designs, he said.

The Research Institute tests about 10 to 15 sulky prototypes annually, including carts made from steel, aluminum, composite materials or wood. Sulkies can range in price from $3,500 to $8,000, depending on the material, Allen said.

In UDRI’s test, a sulky is positioned on the testing rig with an aluminum plate fastened to the cart’s seat bracket. The plate is attached to a hydraulic cylinder via a chain drive. The cylinder then pulls down on the chain once every second for 10,000 cycles, exerting up to 675 pounds of force to simulate a 225-pound driver at a gravitational force of three.

“In that process, we hope to see any kind of cracks that would develop,” Allen said. Carts that fail typically fracture at weld points, or the rear arch that supports the seat bracket will buckle, he said.

If the sulky passes that test, it is put through another test with a load of 1,125 pounds. That test typically will open up any internal fractures that weren’t visible after the first test, Allen said.

It can take up to eight hours for technicians to install the cart in the testing rig in a free-floating position to replicate race track conditions.

UDRI approval means that the sulky design can then be manufactured and sold for use in USTA-sanctioned races.

Allen declined to disclose the fees manufacturers pay UDRI for the testing, but said it’s not a money-maker for the university. There are several large sulky manufacturing companies, but many are small shops. “We want to try to help them out and better the racing community for safety concerns,” he said.

The service helps demonstrate UDRI’s structures, materials and manufactured component testing capabilities, which typically are performed as part of government- or industry-sponsored research, Allen said.

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