10/16/2013 1:48PM

Jay Hovdey: Del Mar planting seed for Breeders' Cup bid

Email

Never mind the fact that California racing will have one less racetrack and a whole new calendar beginning in 2014. There also will be two brand new courses over which a healthy amount of racing and training will take place. One of them is at Los Alamitos, where the five-furlong Quarter Horse track is being expanded to a mile for year-round training and Thoroughbred meets in the early summer and late fall. The other is at Del Mar, where the 53-year-old turf layout has been removed and replaced with a course 30 feet wider.

Earlier this week, Del Mar turf course superintendent Leif Dickinson stood at what he assured a visitor will be the far turn of the work in progress. The fact that there was nothing surrounding him but a broad expanse of packed and piled dirt did not deter Dickinson from describing what will be the first major reimagining of a California grass layout since the straightaways of the Hollywood Park course were extended in 1985.

“Going to 80 feet wide will make for a dramatic difference,” Dickinson said. “That will give us rail positions at zero, six, 12, 18, 24, and 30 feet, which will help us a lot on the three-eighths turn and the seven-eighths turn, especially that first year.”

That first year will be next summer, when Del Mar runs its traditional seven weeks, followed by a shorter meet in the fall. The project is on target, with Bermuda grass growing at an inland desert sod farm.

“After we get the sub-grade set, the irrigation lines placed, the new growing profile added and everything graded we should be ready to add the grass some time around the first of the year,” Dickinson said. “Then right after the sod goes in, we plan to cover the whole track with blankets to heat up the profile, very similar to what the San Diego Chargers do to their practice field.”

Turf superintendents of all kinds belong to a sort of secret society rife with incantations of fungicides, wetting agents, and stolon aggression.

“I met with the superintendent of the Chargers last week and told him what we were up against,” Dickinson said. “ ‘But we have football players,’ he said. I told him, ‘You have no idea.’ I don’t care what kind of turf you’re talking about – football, baseball, soccer, golf. Compared to any sport where you use turf, the equine athlete blows it out of the water. We need more of everything in terms of good weather, maintenance, and profile strength.”

Moan, moan, moan. Dickinson sounds like a typical guy with lawn problems (I forgot to ask him about my crabgrass). But then, his lawn is 10 1/2 acres. And the four-legged, half-ton neighborhood kids chewing it up have names like Obviously, Tiz Flirtatious, and Indy Point.

“With a fall meet here starting next year, we can’t do things the same way we’ve done them,” Dickinson continued. “We can’t possibly keep the summer grass course as high as we have in the past because we’ll have to overseed it with rye once the meet ends. Then, after the November meet, we’ll be transitioning back to growing a Bermuda course in the middle of winter.”

Tim Read, Del Mar’s vice president of operations, wandered over to talk turf. The original course was built in 1960 during the tenure of Read’s father, the late Eddie Read, in management’s inner circle.

“My dad had gone with Fritz Hawn to Australia to look at horses,” Read said, referring to Del Mar director W.R. Hawn. “The story goes, they became so enamored with turf racing down there that when they came home they convinced the board of directors to put in a course.”

In 1996, Dickinson supervised the installation of a Santa Anita Park turf course that brought to an end 13 years of failed experimentation with a variety of grasses, soils, and plastic grids designed to enhance all-weather durability.

In 2004, Dickinson was hired by Del Mar, where his first priority was the triage of a course that, among other things, badly needed resodding. Still, it was the width of the course that remained the stickiest issue, especially when Del Mar management began lusting after a crack at a Breeders’ Cup bid. There was no way the Breeders’ Cup capacity of 14 runners could be safely accommodated.

Now it’s happening, and by next July Del Mar should have the showcase turf course required for Breeders’ Cup consideration. Still, when you renovate a house without adding square footage, compromises need to be made. The turns – as measured in radius for you geometry fans – will sharpen as the course is widened inward.

“The turn radius of the old track was 353 feet,” Dickinson said. “Santa Anita’s is 322. The new track will be 310, but that’s at the zero rail position. At the six-foot rail position it will be closer to Santa Anita’s. The old turns here were banked at about 3 1/2 percent, so we’re going to five percent, which should help.”

The most dramatic feature of the old course was the unkind angle at which the infield turf chute – used for nine-furlong events like the Grade 1 Eddie Read and Del Mar Oaks – attached to the main course.

“That was one of our corrective projects,” Dickinson said, while standing at what will be the head of the realigned chute. “We’re pushing the chute west to soften that turn.”

At times Dickinson had to raise his voice above a steady relay of dump trucks and watering tankers.

“We’re taking off about 500,000 tons of material from the old turf track, and there will be an equal amount coming back,” Dickinson said. “Most of the old material is being shipped off site to be composted and eventually turned into soil. The rest is being used to build up berms around the lakes – really they’re drainage ponds – to increase capacity. That gives us the opportunity to add fountains and other water features, and enhance the landscaping.

“Everything is being used here or it’s being recycled. Even the concrete from the footings of the old rail posts, hundreds of them. And we found things we weren’t anticipating.”

Buried doubloons? Dead bodies? The keys to my ’72 Camaro?

“Drain lines, drain boxes, things without use dating from who knows when,” Dickinson said. “We’ve got guys who’ve been here 40 years that didn’t know what some of the stuff was for.

“We put on the plans everything we thought would be there,” he added. “And still we’re required to have a paleontologist and an archeologist who come by once a week. That’s just in case we find an arrowhead.”