07/30/2014 2:35PM

Hovdey: Del Mar turf course needs time to mature

Benoit & Associates
The new Del Mar turf course is pristine but hasn't had a full season of water and sun to allow its root system to take hold.

Let it never be said that Del Mar’s owners and trainers lack the stones to roll the dice. Even in the wake of three turf-course fatalities last Friday and Saturday and the suspension of grass racing Sunday, there were only two scratches among the 27 horses entered in the three Wednesday turf races already drawn, plus full fields of 10, eight, and 10 subsequently entered for the three grass races scheduled for Thursday and Friday.

This is also the kind of newspaper column that rolls the dice, since it is being written before any of the three turf races scheduled for Wednesday have gone to post. Fingers crossed, stars aligned, everything will go well, and the races will be nothing but exciting displays of grace and speed.

The faith of the owners and trainers involved relied largely upon the emergency maintenance administered to the course Monday. The turf was aerated and watered, then on Tuesday, it was inspected by representatives of all the major players, including the California Horse Racing Board, the California Thoroughbred Trainers, and the Jockeys’ Guild.

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Their faith in the ultimate safety of the softened course also rested on the fact that owners and trainers know, deep in their bones, that the condition of a racing surface is never the only factor to blame if something goes terribly wrong with a Thoroughbred racehorse.

If honesty prevails, they know that what a racehorse brings to a race in terms of physical condition ultimately will determine how that racehorse survives the experience, and that competing over a less-than-optimal racing surface can exacerbate an existing problem, no matter how small. They know that any owner or trainer who points to the racetrack every time a horse gets hurt is guilty of tunnel vision.

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The newly installed Del Mar grass course is pristine. It is impossible to take a “bad step” anywhere, any more than it would be possible to stumble on the 18th green at Augusta National. That has been the good news.

The bad news is that the newly installed Del Mar grass course is newly installed. Its root system is still taking hold. There is none of the lively bounce of a mature Bermuda course, like the one over which recent Breeders’ Cups have been run at Santa Anita.

Unfortunately, the economic tyranny of the racing calendar did not allow enough time for the new course to mature. The optimum growing season for a newly installed Bermuda grass course is July, August, and into warm September. Del Mar races in July, August, and into September.

This left course superintendent Leif Dickinson to push growth as much as he could, given the environmental restrictions on extreme fertilization options in the ecologically sensitive area surrounding Del Mar. He cut the course as often as he dared to encourage growth, all the while concerned with compacting the ground with equipment traffic. What he came up with was a course he declared as “good, and will only get better.”

The fatalities have altered that reality. Aeration and deep watering could make the course vulnerable to rips and tears that will take longer to fix.

“Studies tell us that the incidence of injury on turf, dirt, or synthetics is closely associated with moisture and water content,” said Wayne McIlwraith, the equine orthopedic surgeon who has long studied the relationship of ground to soundness. “We’ve certainly seen that a hard course of any kind can exacerbate an incipient pathology. And it’s not the idea of a so-called ‘bad step.’ It is the accrued concussion of running a race over a hard surface.”

At the end of the day, it was the economic carrot of a Breeders’ Cup coming to Del Mar that prompted management to install a new turf course that could accommodate the demands of the event. Presto ... Del Mar is getting the Breeders’ Cup in 2017, by which time the turf course could be the best in California in terms of both safety and durability.

Which begs the question: What’s the hurry?

Blasi’s second chance

Steve Asmussen certainly gets a point for brand loyalty in his decision to welcome longtime assistant Scott Blasi back into the fold. Whether it was a good idea remains to be seen.

Thoroughbred racing suffered a deep wound over the damage done by Blasi’s crude and troubling remarks presented in the widely distributed slice of PETA’s video propaganda from last spring. As a result, it will require much more than a personal aeration and deep watering to rehabilitate Blasi in the eyes of the game, no matter how empty the PETA charges have turned out to be. Until then, he’ll be “that guy” on the PETA video whose vocabulary would turn a sailor’s ears blue.

Of course, Blasi has company. Don Imus (racial slurs) got his radio job back. Phil Robertson (gender and racial slurs) got his “Duck Dynasty” back. Bobby Knight (rape remarks) always gets his job back. Asmussen defined Blasi as an important part of the economic well-being of his stable. Let’s hope the horses in Blasi’s care will reap their own benefits from yet another second chance.