03/27/2015 2:06PM

Hovdey: Tedesco the constant in changing surfaces


Rich Tedesco bent down and grabbed a handful of the soft, reddish brown soil piled in a strip along the outside of Del Mar’s seven-furlong chute.

“It does look a little like the track we put in at Hollywood Park back then,” Tedesco said. “I can only hope it acts the same way.”

“Back then” was the late 1970s, when the distinctive hue of the Hollywood Park main track came from the river-bottom sand found in nearby El Segundo. Track superintendent Tedesco went back to that same source for the Del Mar surface, and now hope is flying high at the seaside track, where the construction of a new main track is humming along on schedule.

Construction is the right word, given the fleet of heavy equipment attending the project, the manufacture of drainage gravel from salvaged material, and the plumbing and carpentry required to create the framework for what amounts to a highly specialized dirt road.

Dirt tracks are very much in the headlines right now, what with Meydan shifting back to sandy loam this winter for its World Cup Carnival. With nearly 40 years of racetrack experience, Tedesco is supervising what could be the most important surface laid in California in what has been a seemingly endless series of West Coast projects over the past 10 years.

The various versions of the state-mandated synthetic tracks ended up being a boondoggle profiting only the companies selling those products, while setting back the acceptance of a viable manufactured surface for years, or maybe forever. Santa Anita’s replacement of its synthetic surface with old-fashioned dirt required an expensive makeover almost the day after it was installed. And let’s not even talk about Del Mar’s experience with its new turf course unveiled last summer, which was blamed, rightly or wrongly, for an alarming cluster of fatalities.

The pressure for Tedesco to get the main track right comes from several sides. The track already has expanded its racing dates beyond its summer season to fill the demands of top-class racing in November, and Del Mar will be hosting the Breeders’ Cup in 2017, when the whole racing world will be watching. Beyond that, Del Mar is the best solution to the Southern California stabling and training challenge.

“Next December, after the fall meet, we’ll be working on the drainage system in the stable area,” Tedesco said. “That can only mean one thing: getting ready to have horses here during the rainy season.”

Okay, so California doesn’t really have a rainy season anymore. But when it rains, it really rains, and the sea-level Del Mar backstretch turns into a bowl of brown water.

Tedesco, who had the unenviable job of “fixing” the synthetic-surface mistakes made at Santa Anita, has consulted and installed tracks far and wide, including two in Saudi Arabia for racing aficionado Prince Sultan, a member of the royal family.

“We also built him a moat,” Tedesco said. “It circles a place of meditation, with gardens and vineyards. I’ve got to admit it’s a pretty nice setting. Very peaceful.”

The life of a superintendent putting in an American racetrack under the gun is anything but peaceful, and yet Tedesco seemed to be satisfied with the way things at Del Mar were going. He lives within walking distance of the track, and when he strays these days, it is for an occasional visit to Los Alamitos, where he and his wife, Tracy, have a 3-year-old in training with Mike Puype. Disco Boy, a son of Dixie Chatter, has yet to make his debut.

“You’d think I’d know better, being in the business for so long,” Tedesco said. “But you should see the way he’s developed from 2 to 3. We’re sure looking forward to seeing him run.”

That’s Puype’s problem. In the meantime Tedesco’s immediate deadline is mid-April, when the seven-furlong chute and an adjacent furlong of the main track must be completely surfaced to accommodate the participants in the popular Del Mar Horse Show. The entire track must be completed by the end of May, in time for the Barretts sale of 2-year-olds relocating to Del Mar from its former Fairplex Park home.

The removal of the former Polytrack surface was as much a challenge as the installation of the new dirt surface. Tedesco took to Craigslist to advertise its availability.

“I told people they would be getting a surface that cost $10 million originally – for free,” Tedesco said. “Farms and show-horse places started showing up with trucks and hauling it away until it was all gone. We must have saved a million dollars in disposal costs.”

The salvage did not end there. The drainage system for the Polytrack base was made up of a rock bed that was becoming unstable and working its way to the surface. Those rocks were removed and turned into the gravel that now lines the traditional drainage system running along the inner circumference of the track, while the leftovers – piled high in the infield – are being sold off.

Once the Barretts sale is in the books, there won’t be much time left to tinker. The Del Mar Fair runs June 5 through July 5, precluding any main-track work, and then the Del Mar summer meet opens Thursday, July 16.

“Right now, it’s just a matter of getting the material hauled here from Oceanside,” Tedesco said. “So far, we’re not working weekends.”