07/30/2014 3:35PM

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.

Felton Suthon More than 1 year ago
Can they use the European tactic of purposely watering the turf course?
Eric Singer More than 1 year ago
I think it would be appropriate to suspend racing on the turf for the rest of this meet and see what they can do after. How many horses need to die while the course is "maturing?"
Rusty Sanders More than 1 year ago
Horse make the game you're ignorant !! I'd like to meet you in a tunnel :) your a horrible writer and always have been why don't you wipe the makeup off your face and write about something real!!!
Rusty Sanders More than 1 year ago
OWNERS MAKE THE GAME ! Without them you've no horses or stories to write on what a dummy
Rusty Sanders More than 1 year ago
My horse ran the seven in 122 hovdey that give you any indication on to how hard that track is ?! That's grade 1 time it's like a ROCK
Rusty Sanders More than 1 year ago
What's the ariantvin that track a minus five ???
Rusty Sanders More than 1 year ago
variant !!
Rusty Sanders More than 1 year ago
My horse was hurt Wednesday and was made no mention of at all running on that 405/ turf course it's a rock he went the seven in 122 go look at the rest of his races ! Had him x rayed pre race nothing wrong !! Hovdey your an idiot !!!
Roger Pelish More than 1 year ago
Mr. Hodvey's column shows a clear and present danger when opining on a story that is still developing. The Del Mar turf course is an "experiment" that is costing horses their lives. A true professional would have never written this story and he even acknowleged this when he says he rolled the dice--for him he just crapped out. My bigger fear is when the synthetic course is removed and replaced with dirt. Del Mar had suffered a record number of fatal breakdowns and was the only track in California that was fully behind the shift to synthetic. Let's hope the new dirt course will play out better than the turf.
Rusty Sanders More than 1 year ago
Things hard as a rock period and so is Santa Anita's turf ! It's not turf it's hard carpet!! I used to train a horse raced Wednesday race number 3 came back hurt !!! He's never run seven furlongs in 122 ever workout or otherwise it's a freeway !!!with no GIVE!!!
Paul More than 1 year ago
Let's see ---You knew in advance the Turf Course was rock hard but yet you still ran him. Looks like to me--you are the idiot--not Jay Hovdey who is just reporting the facts.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
""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"" Sorry to disagree here, but the turf at SA has been harder than the main dirt track, especially on BCup days..
Ann More than 1 year ago
3-year drought in California. Worst in recorded history. Water going elsewhere.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
"Water going elsewhere." As should the Breeders Cup..
Ian GW More than 1 year ago
Man. Delmar going backwards fast with the field sizes. Guess trainers and owners are scared to run. You look at the start and this week and weekend a big step back. Off to somewhere else to they get it back together.
DavidM9999 More than 1 year ago
From the recap above it sounds like Del Mar rolled the dice on the new course root system being sufficient to sustain safe racing. That gamble so far in 2014 has been a losing one for the horses, jockeys and owners involved in the breakdowns. An imperfect man Asmussen gives another imperfect man Blasi a second chance in our imperfect sport. Apparently Asmussen thinks Blasi is an “important part in the economic well-being of the operation”. Translation – horses in Blasi’s care win a lot. Now there is a difference in winning and winning right. We know this partnership wins let’s see some winning right going forward from these guys.
William Haley More than 1 year ago
It's all about money. Pletcher just went down in my regard for him. I'm not sure why Jay's comment is "no matter how empty the PETA charges have turned out to be." Why are they "empty?"
Walter More than 1 year ago
So the Course Superintendent was restricted on fertilization options because of the ecological sensitivity of the Del Mar area? Why weren't those same restrictions in place when Polytrack was put down there? The artificial elements of Poly cannot be good for the ecological sensitive area. Someone got paid off handsomely to approve Poly. Fact is they wanted a super fast turf course. Downside is, they didn't expect all the fatalities. Solution... Grow some lush grass!