Updated on 09/17/2011 10:46PM

Root, root, root for new grass


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It's mid-November in Southern California. The sun is shining, and temperatures have been running on the high side of average. The weather is perfect for a lot of healthy activities, but at Hollywood Park such benign conditions mean only one thing:

It's grass-growing time.

The truly serious competition at the current Hollywood meet is not taking place among horses and riders on the main track. It's out there on the freshly laid grass course, where nearly nine acres of GN-1 bermuda is waging a quietly desperate race against both time and the elements.

The work was necessary because the sod rolled out in August did not take root, prompting the Bay Meadows Land Co. - the new owners of Hollywood Park - to cancel grass racing for the current meet. The sod rolled out in August was installed because the existing turf course had poor drainage and was steadily deteriorating.

In terms of reputation and financial impact, Hollywood Park can just barely get away with this unprecedented abandonment of its autumn turf program. The meet is short. Racing on the well-established turf course at Santa Anita is right around the corner. And anyway, doesn't everyone make mistakes?

But this one was a whopper - "a nightmare you can't wake up from," according to one Hollywood official - especially in light of the fact that Hollywood's former management team, under Churchill Downs ownership, was highly satisfied with a 100-yard test strip of Seashore paspalum that was raced on earlier this year. At the very least, you would think someone deserves a refund.

"I don't know what we're going to do on that," said Jack Liebau, who became Hollywood Park president when the Bay Meadows Land Co. took over in September. "It's difficult, and complicated."

Hollywood Park's new ownership has been granted the track's traditional dates for next spring and summer by the California Horse Racing Board. But if the grass course still is not playable by April, all bets could be off.

"They say success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan," said John Harris, chairman of the CHRB. "There's nothing that can be done about what has happened, and nobody is really tying down whose fault it was."

There is an ongoing CHRB investigation into the facts behind the cancellation of grass racing.

"I think we can do quite a bit going forward, though, so that when a track is licensed they have the best courses of any applicant," Harris added. "Usually, the application process is not competitive, but the board can definitely, as part of the licensing process, show discretion on what kind of course a racetrack has to offer."

Eual Wyatt, Hollywood's general manager for both the old and new owners, is looking on the bright side.

"The new sod is in, and it's actually beginning to root, which is good because it gives us a little head start going into the winter," Wyatt said Wednesday. "So far everybody involved, including our consultant, is pleased with what they see."

The consultant on the scene is Dr. Ken Kurtz, a 65-year-old retired professor of turf management who grew up in suburban Chicago going to the races at Arlington Park. Kurtz taught at Cal Poly Pomona for 36 years, and has real-world experience as a hands-on consultant for such high-profile playing fields as Anaheim Stadium, Lakeside Country Club, and the Rose Bowl.

Kurtz was the turf expert who steered Del Mar course superintendent Leif Dickinson toward GN-1 bermuda grass for the seaside course. Making its debut last summer, the new Del Mar course received mixed reviews, with most of the complaints focused on the firm base rather than the success of the sod. Even though Hollywood is the first Thoroughbred surface he has tackled, Kurtz is aware of the obvious differences.

"Well, for one, you've got a bigger, heavier player," Kurtz said with a laugh. "You need a grass that's durable, that grows back, and knits well when you break the surface."

Of course, that's what they said about Seashore paspalum, which was supposed to provide a tough, cool-temperature tolerant course that could survive a degree of use in wet weather. Kurtz is not a paspalum fan.

"I really couldn't believe that they put it in there," he said of the Hollywood course. "We had it in the Rose Bowl, back in 1983, after they had installed it at Fresno State. It was overseeded for the Rose Bowl game, but after the game there wasn't much left, so I had it taken out."

He recommended that the same be done with the newly installed Hollywood course.

"It wasn't rooting," Kurtz said. "And even through the winter it might not have taken off. You could have waited until spring and still not had a course."

Kurtz confirmed that he is happy with the GN-1 sod, so far. But it will need help through the winter.

"We're going to spray it with turf colorants," he said. "It doesn't hurt the grass, and we find it holds in more sunlight and heat, which helps push the roots, since a darker surface absorbs more heat."

Makes sense. But then, if green colorant holds in heat, wouldn't black absorb even more?

"We've done that, used black colorant at sod farms to get the grass growing faster," Kurtz replied. "But you don't really want black out there when people are watching races."

Good point. A black wreath on a grass course might send the wrong message.