10/20/2017 2:46PM

Hovdey: Moore tries to deliver level playing field


There are several East Coast trainers who have had little or no personal experience running horses at Del Mar. As to why, their answer is always, “Saratoga.”

“I know nothing about it,” McGaughey told Steve Byk on “At the Races” the other day, “which is a little bit uncomfortable.”

Trainers hate the unknown, venturing forth only when the risk is significantly greater than the reward. Any discomfort in the adventure of the first Breeders’ Cup to be held at Del Mar, however, could stem from the inordinate amount of publicity that the surfaces – both dirt and turf – have received over the past several years. These are, after all, the playing fields.

The turf course underwent a major renovation during the offseason leading up to the 2014 summer meet. The course was widened and fresh Bermuda sod was rolled out over the 10 1/2-acre expanse. It was done in order to secure the 2017 Breeders’ Cup.

The debut season was marred by several turf breakdowns, which precipitated a 10-day course shutdown for aeration and deep watering. There has been nothing so traumatic in the three seasons since then as the course has matured, and turf superintendent Leif Dickinson, a world-class worrier, says his baby should be in good shape for the Nov. 1 opening and the Breeders’ Cup of Nov. 3 and 4.

“The days are shorter and the nights are getting cool, so growth is slowing down,” Dickinson pointed out. “Compared to Santa Anita’s course, it will definitely be slower.”

That’s not a bad thing. The best horses run fast enough, anyway. If anything, however, the horses running on the Del Mar turf for the first time will be faced with the tightest turns and the shortest stretch they’ve ever encountered.

In order to accommodate the 14-horse fields mandated by the Breeders’ Cup, the course was widened inward. This significantly reduced the radius of the turns, from 353 feet to 310 feet at the zero rail position. To help compensate, the banking of the turns was increased. Still, it will be the horses who can maintain their pace on the turns who have the advantage, unless, or course, they can come with a final furlong that shades 10 seconds.

No sooner was the new turf course installed than Del Mar management ripped out the degraded Polytrack surface on the main course and went back to the old-fashioned sand and loam, in time for the 2015 summer meet. When fatalities spiked during the 2016 summer season, raining down criticism from animal-rights groups and local media. Management’s hand was forced and the dirt surface was replaced again last spring.

The result was a track with far fewer fatalities than the previous season, although several other factors went into the improved numbers. Not the least  was the presence of Dennis Moore as superintendent, the third in three years.

Moore was already caring for the dirt surfaces at Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, and the San Luis Rey Downs training center. At the time of his hire, the company line read that Moore’s mandate was to make Del Mar more like the other tracks on the circuit.

To his credit, Moore didn’t pay much attention to the press release and went about his job, ripping down 16 inches to the base, regrading, blending in fresh materials, and fine-tuning the 6 1/2-inch cushion, all in consultation with his soul mate, Mick Petersen, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory.

As a result, the track was slow through the first part of the summer meet, eliciting predictable cries of anguish from horseplayers and trainers who could fathom neither time nor condition. Moore was sympathetic, but stuck to his guns. Gradually, as the base set up, the track edged toward more conventional clockings as the meet progressed.

“We had to tear it out down to the base to get everything straightened out,” Moore said. “Our goal for this meet is to have the track we had at the end of the summer.”

Moore brings 45 years of experience to the job, and this will be his fourth Breeders’ Cup as track superintendent after two at Santa Anita and the 1997 running at Hollywood Park. He had his Del Mar crew working the track more than two weeks before training was to begin Oct. 23.

“We put everything back to grade, added some material, and have been putting enough water on it to get it where we want it to be,” Moore said.

He comes by his trade honestly. His father, Bob Moore, and brother Ron Moore both were respected track superintendents.

“I was 7 years old and my dad had a little old triangle drag harrow,” Moore said. “My brother and I used to sit on each end trying to knock each other off. We’ve come a long way from those days.”

The pressure on every racetrack department is enormous when a Breeders’ Cup comes to town, but the track superintendents seem to walk around with an extra large target on their windbreakers.

“I love it when the best horses show up,” Moore said. “But my philosophy doesn’t change. We’ll do everything we can for our part in making it as safe as possible. That’s exactly how I go into every day we’ve got horses and riders out there on the track.”