02/13/2003 1:00AM

The master gardener


ARCADIA, Calif. - Leif Dickinson walked the full circuit of the Santa Anita grass course on Wednesday afternoon and tried to remember the last time he'd seen so much water. He couldn't.

"It was raining so hard, with so much coming down so fast, there was actually standing water over the whole thing," he said the next afternoon. "We got four inches of rain."

Four inches in California this dry winter of 2003 could be a sign of the apocalypse, or at the very least a cue to begin assembling animals in groups of two. Everyone was getting downright spoiled, as arid, sunny January and early February provided Santa Anita with six solid weeks of uninterrupted sport - 77 grass races over the first 38 days.

It is more than just the good weather, though. Through it all, the course has held up like a dream - safe, durable and visually striking on both television and in real life. Dickinson and his crew get the credit, and Santa Anita management deserves a pat on the back for granting Dickinson the kind of freedom a true horticultural artist needs to do the job. The standard has been set very high.

"Is that a bad thing?" Dickinson wondered.

At this point some readers might want to move on to Watchmaker or Litfin, or one of the more entertaining columns of this newspaper. The rest of this space will be pretty much dedicated to gardening.

It is gardening on a grand scale, however. The work of Dickinson and his crew directly affects the bottom line of Santa Anita's parimutuel handle. Their care of the grass course affects the health and welfare of horses and riders. It hits the pocketbooks of owners and trainers, who invest in Thoroughbreds that require grass opportunities to maximize their worth.

Dickinson's work is also the reason that horses who come to Santa Anita later this year for the Breeders' Cup will be running on a grass course that provides them with no excuse for anything less than their best performance.

"A lot of the reason the course performs so well is because there is maintenance on it that most people don't see - on dark days and after training in the morning," Dickinson said Thursday morning.

It is that emphasis on constant maintenance that has given Dickinson a reputation as a master craftsman. He is one with his soil, true to his fescue, using vigilance and common sense along with the other tools of his trade. It also helps that he was the one who supervised its installation in 1996.

"With a turf track like this, containing sizeable amounts of silt and clay, when you put compaction on it you're essentially forcing all the air out of the soil," Dickinson said. "You're left with a solid block of water and soil, and when that dries out it becomes very hard."

Sounds like the recipe for making adobe bricks.

"Exactly," Dickinson said.

That is why you will see guys out there pushing hand mowers around the 16-acre Santa Anita course, as if they were clipping their backyard after a ball game on a Saturday afternoon. The big tractor-style mowers may be faster, and they may cost less in man-hours, but they also pack the ground. And hard ground has ruined many turf courses, including the one that existed at Santa Anita well into the 1980's.

Dickinson knows every inch of his course. He sends men with hoses to hand water the smallest dry patch. He worries over the slightest signs of wear. After last Sunday, 35 days into the 85-day meet, he was already attacking potential weak spots.

"Some areas in particular," Dickinson said. "Like the crossover gap - what I call the triangle - hit by all the horses coming off the hill, all the horses running a mile and mile and one-eighth, and all the workouts, too. It gets pretty beat up.

"Three days ago we started to pre-germinate a lot of seeds," he went on. "We get them so they're just starting to pop. Then yesterday we spread the germinating seeds over those thin areas, hoping that this rain will help bring them right up."

Dickinson's arsenal is varied. To squeegee a wet course, he will roll an empty water drum clockwise around the oval, keeping it as light as possible. If the ground needs to breathe, he will "spike" the turf to a depth of four inches with solid, star-shaped tines that aerate the soil without pulling those small pellets of ground. When a divot is too large for his taste, he will transplant a core of turf from an unused portion of the hillside for instant repair. And on Wednesday, during the downpour, his men were on the course applying a wetting agent that opened the soil to allow for even better drainage.

As a result, Santa Anita is on a pace similar to the amazing 198 grass races run at the meet last year. On a more timely note, there is a good chance the $200,000 San Luis Obispo Handicap will be run at a mile and one-half on the grass Saturday afternoon. If not, it won't be because Dickinson and his crew did not try their best. As usual.