02/19/2014 4:44PM

Jay Hovdey: Del Mar on quest to find good dirt

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Benoit & Associates
Del Mar will switch from Polytrack to dirt for its main track beginning in 2015.

Now that Del Mar’s management has decided to return to a main track made of dirt, and before the era of synthetic surfaces in Southern California is buried once and for all beneath a mound of chopped tires, sticky wax, and carpet fibers, it might help to take one last glance in the rearview mirror just to make sure the sport never goes through the same ordeal again.

So, Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to May 25, 2006, and the meeting of the California Horse Racing Board at Hollywood Park, where board chairman Richard Shapiro is about to call for a vote on a proposal to require any track that operates four continuous weeks of racing to install an “artificial polymer-type surface” before Jan. 1, 2008.

The proposal was inspired by an increase in fatal racing and training injuries over the state’s most recent seasons, particularly at Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields. Nothing could explain away the carnage. There were no easy answers. But in Kentucky, the long meet at Turfway Park over its new synthetic surface had experienced a dramatic decrease in equine deaths. The connection was made: It had to be the surface.

Skeptics wondered if the answer was that simple, but their concerns were overwhelmed by proponents of synthetic technology.

Then, five days before the CHRB meeting, the undefeated Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro suffered a catastrophic injury at the start of the Preakness and was fighting for his life. The drama, played out before an international audience, riveted the attention of the California commissioners. The vote was unanimous in favor of the synthetic mandate, with one abstention.

At which point the “free market” descended upon the racing management of California tracks like black flies on a dead caribou. By the time the pie had been sliced, to the tune of about $10 million per track installation – plus maintenance, rewaxing, drainage adjustment, and equipment conversion – there were four competing companies profiting from the synthetic mandate.

And still there was dirt, at Bay Meadows (given a pass since it was going out of business in 2008), at the county fairs (with less than four weeks of racing), for Standardbreds (wheels), and Quarter Horses, whose proponents convinced the CHRB that a synthetic surface was exactly the wrong thing for their breed. Almost overnight, California racing became an ongoing experiment in surface technology, on a budget. It was a mess.

Interestingly, Del Mar boss Joe Harper has pointed out that the clock was already ticking on the Polytrack surface that made its debut there in 2007. The foundation upon which the synthetic material is spread has degraded to a point where it would have needed complete replacement soon.

“The fix we’ve put in for this year is most likely temporary, and that was a factor,” Harper said. “But honest to God, it’s always the safety factor we’re concerned with. The reason we put it in was so we’d all have the same track, and that never really materialized. Now, being the only show in town with a synthetic surface really won’t work.”

Richard Tedesco, Del Mar’s main-track superintendent, has been given credit by horsemen for a near-miracle triage of the Santa Anita surface after the drainage debacle of 2009, and he has managed to stabilize a Del Mar surface that had experienced frustrating variations from summer to summer. Now, he’s back in the dirt business.

“We’re looking at 19,000 tons,” Tedesco said. “To find stuff that’s good, with fine texture, is not that easy. Most of it’s just heavy clay, junk like that. I don’t really want to do a mixture with one of these rock, sand, and gravel plants. I’m looking for dirt I can start with, then if I want to mix in a small amount of something else, I would do it myself.”

Sounds nuts, right? The man can’t find dirt? But an experienced hand like Tedesco knows that your surface is no better than the material you start with, and most superintendants are either working with worn-out goods or someone else’s mistakes.

The last California dirt track Tedesco installed from scratch was at Hollywood Park in the late 1970s. Those of a certain age and mental acuity recall the surface’s vibrant reddish hue.

“I found that dirt where they were excavating for an underground garage project on the corner of El Segundo and Sepulveda Boulevard,” Tedesco said, describing a location not far from both Hollywood Park and Los Angeles International Airport.

“It was perfect,” he said. “Soft, light, with bounce. But it’s almost impossible to find good dirt anymore. The way the building economy is going, there are not that many excavations to choose from. And you’ve got to watch the people who deal in dirt very carefully. You’d better be right there to watch them screen it. I’ve seen loads with rocks, boards, all kinds of junk.

“Believe me, I’m looking everywhere,” Tedesco added. “I’ve even gone as far as going back to Tennessee.”

Tedesco and his colleague, Dennis Moore, sing from the same hymnal when it comes to track composition and maintenance, and they are now the guys in charge. That means there is a chance that all the worst mistakes have been made, and that the dirt of the sprawling Southern California circuit will be as consistent as possible. The horses can only hope.