01/20/2005 12:00AM

Tale of the turf at Santa Anita


ARCADIA, Calif. - Now that Santa Anita has dried out from its 20-inch January deluge, the game is afoot once again, accompanied by all the excitement that top-class turf racing provides.

The meet already has lost the San Gabriel Handicap, the Monrovia Handicap, and the San Gorgonio to the rains - all of them shifted to the muddy main track - so it is good news that Saturday's program will mark the return of stakes racing to the grass with the $150,000 San Marcos Stakes, a 10-furlong race won in the past by such stalwart animals as Round Table, Cougar II, John Henry, Great Communicator, and Sandpit.

If you are in the mood for real nail-biting drama, however, pull up a chair late Saturday night, somewhere around the inside of the Santa Anita oval, and watch a crew of storm-hardened excavators delicately scoop out the mud-filled trough separating the main track from the turf course.

Spotlights illuminate the half -dozen men as they carefully work their way around drains and power cables hidden beneath the trampoline tarp that breaks the fall of unlucky jockeys. The mud removal is so specialized that a specifically trained backhoe operator needed to be hired for the job.

"The trench is only about three feet deep, but that's still a lot of mud," said plant superintendent Steve Guise. "The guys have to be so careful that there have been some nights we've only been able to take one truckload of dirt out of there.

"My plumbers have been working around the clock with their vacuum truck sucking out drains," Guise went on. "Every drain around that track was full of sand. It's a major project, and we've been working on it seven days straight, ever since the rains stopped."

Guise was hopeful the entire one-mile circumference of the trough and the network of drains would be effectively cleared by early next week. The possible consequences of delay, he noted, would not be pretty. If another big storm were to hit with the mud level still high and drains clogged, there would be an overflowing silt slide onto the grass course that could render the turf unusable.

And that would be a shame, because right now horses and riders are being treated to the prettiest grass course California has ever seen. Man and nature have conspired to present 16 acres of lush, green landscape, untroubled by divots or bare spots. With such a playing field, the natural temptation would be to flood the cards with grass events.

Guise cringes at the thought. Unlike their bulldozing main track counterparts, turf course superintendents tend to live and die by each blade of grass. They deal with living organisms. They feed. They trim. Their grass can be "injured," perhaps even have its feelings hurt.

"Grass courses suffer the worst damage when you run on them wet," Guise said. "The racing office knows we have a long season. They work with us, and we're much better to be on the safe side, and pull a race off the grass rather than risk a bigger divot that won't grow back as fast."

The annual rye seed that was broadcast last November rooted and grew like topsy during the storms, while fed by rain-borne natural nitrogen and further encouraged by Guise's time-release fertilization plan. The resulting carpet has been cut to a four-inch height, supported by a healthy thatch of dormant Tiffway bermuda and a packed sand base that drains like a sailor's bankroll.

Guise has been on the job as Santa Anita turf course superintendent since his predecessor, Leif Dickinson, left to work full time for Del Mar last spring. As head of Guise & Associates, Guise builds and consults on the construction of sports fields all over the world, but he hardly needed a map of Santa Anita. This is his second time around as course super.

"I was there from 1989 to 1993," he said. "Which means I was superintendent when we got close to 40 inches of rain in January of 1991. It was all about the mud that year, too. Only this time we were a lot more prepared."

Bad memories. The rains of 1991 brought mudslides to the grandstand's subterranean Paddock Room and flooded the horse tunnel leading from the stables to the training track. Guise remembers a pre-dawn scene in the driving rain complete with a busted berm and a river of mud and water.

The base of the grass course was removed and replaced in 1994, under Dickinson's watch, bringing a merciful end to more than a decade of experimental courses that cost Santa Anita management upward of $12 million. At its lowpoint, the course suffered from an excessively high content of sand, prompting trainer Charlie Whittingham to comment, "Never see much grass growing on the beach, do you?"

"Leif really did his homework," Guise said. "It's been a great success. He decided to go with soil material that would firm it up, without the horses getting into it too much. Then, when it got too firm, he could just go in and tickle it with his aerator.

"Every horseman I speak to says it's the best turf course in the country," Guise added. "I inherited that, and it's my goal to keep that reputation up."