08/31/2004 11:00PM

No splendor on this grass


DEL MAR, Calif. - The Del Mar turf course is not haunted by gremlins, gnomes, or trolls. It was not built on a Native American burial plot and therefore cursed as a desecration of sacred ground. Neither was it abducted, probed, and returned to Earth to carry out the diabolical schemes of an alien civilization. It only seems that way.

From its triumphant debut during the 1960 season, to its contemporary profile as a Breeders' Cup site in waiting, the Del Mar's Jimmy Durante Turf Course has led a life rich in history and drama. Sometimes, almost too much drama.

The most recent brush with surreality occurred on the afternoon of Aug. 19 when three grass course attendants, working under the direction of course superintendent Leif Dickinson, were nearly trampled by a field of seven horses making their way around the final turn of a race at 1 3/8 miles. The men were busily replacing and reseeding the divots dug up by the field the first time around, oblivious to the fact that a second lap was required to complete the event.

The riders involved give Martin "Bullhorn" Pedroza credit for the warning shriek that sent the three workers flying over and under the inside rail. Pedroza was sitting second on Gulchie, while Gent and Tyler Baze led the pack.

"Thank goodness Martin screamed the way he did, otherwise they might not have moved as fast," said Jose Valdivia, who had a good view from atop Power Boy.

"Pedroza said later that one of them was good enough to be on the Olympic diving team," Valdivia added. "It could have been a real disaster. But since no one was hurt, I guess it will be something we'll all laugh about years from now."

Maybe that's what happens when you name a racing surface after a comedian. As Durante used to sing on Saturday nights in the Turf Club, "Inka-dinka-doo."

The Durante course wasn't even seven weeks old before it claimed its first spectacular pelt. On Sept. 5, 1960, John Longden and Amarillo Speed were leading a mile race on the grass around the far turn when the horse bolted into the thick hedge rimming the inner part of the course. Amarillo Speed crashed through the greenery while Longden, age 53 at the time, was thrown directly onto a sprinkler head, breaking it off.

On Sept. 11, 1969, in the final race of the closing-day card, Don Pierce and Admiral Lazarem were cruising on the lead of a 7 1/2-furlong turf claimer when the spirits rose up and spooked the poor horse into the hedge. Eyewitnesses recall that Pierce thrashed around inside the merciless landscape as if caught in quicksand.

By 1974 the course was getting quite a rep. In front of the tote board, where the hedge dropped to barely knee level, favored Trotteur was leading near the end of the second division of the Escondido Handicap. With Fernando Toro trying valiantly to steer, Trotteur wandered just far enough off the course to plow chest first into the standard holding the photo finish mirror. Glass shards filled the air, Toro survived, and Trotteur died a bloody death.

The hedge was removed.

A few years ago, Del Mar president Joe Harper was contemplating an aerial photograph of the racetrack property when he noticed an odd pattern emerging from the grass course. They were, for lack of a better description, crop circles, similar to those attributed to all sorts of nocturnal mischief in the wheat fields of Kansas.

It turned out to be a sprinkler problem (don't blame Longden), which was fixed with a new irrigation system. Since then, steps have been taken to upgrade the quality of the Del Mar grass, most recently with the full-time hire of Dickinson, who gets credit for the resurrection of the course at Santa Anita. This season, Dickinson has had mixed results on the grass, but there has never been a question about his attention to detail.

That detail backfired when his three-man crew ventured forth one lap early on Aug. 19 to restore the ground. After deciding to call the race an official contest, the board of stewards fined the track $3,000 and received assurances that it will never happen again.

As penalties go, the $3,000 represents a wrist slap that made only a moderate dent in the money generated by the race that went to Del Mar. In ontrack win-place-show and exotics alone, the host track made about $11,000. Considerably more math is required to compute the tally from simulcast and telephone outlets. Even more frustrating, the $3,000 fine goes straight to the state's General Fund, which means that horse racing is not even the direct beneficiary of such rulings.

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club is lobbying hard for a Breeders' Cup date, something that will hinge on the widening of the turf course to accommodate 14-horse fields. It is an ambitious task, especially in light of the fact that the current course has yet to be equipped with either a consistently functioning timer or surveillance patrol cameras.

Perhaps the goal of a Breeders' Cup finally will rivet management's attention. After all, the safety and maintenance of the playing field should be the No. 1 priority of any racing association. Everything else is inka-dinka-doo.