12/23/2010 3:55PM

Tender loving care keeps Santa Anita's turf course in tip-top shape

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For those who like their racing wrapped in Biblical parables, consider the main track at Santa Anita the prodigal son, now returned after three years off somewhere having a great time at the family’s expense. He’s back, in all his sandy glory, and all is forgiven. For now.

But what of the good son who never strayed? The son who toiled without particular gratitude in the fields while his brother sent X-rated postcards from Amsterdam? When the prodigal son returned, their father slew the fatted calf and threw a party. The good son was rightfully ticked.

“Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment,” the good son told King James, who put it in his version of Holy Writ, “and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.”

Translation: For him you serve up veal piccata; I’m not even worth a little goat meat.

There is a turf course out there at Santa Anita – that emerald ribbon running inside the dirt and tailing on up the hill – a turf course that held its head high through three seasons of synthetic tumult, along with two presentations of the Breeders’ Cup that gave rise, without complaint or qualification, to the reputations of horses such as Conduit, Goldikova, California Flag, Forever Together, and Midday.

Having absorbed 13 1/2 inches of rain in the week leading up to opening day, the grass was understandably deep and vividly green when the weekend arrived. Jason Spetnagel, who oversees both the turf course and the racetrack grounds, was busy holding his breath, hoping for a few days of sun and even a little wind to at least arrest the saturation.

“Right now it’s pretty soft,” Spetnagel said Thursday morning. “The good thing about this course is that it does seem to drain very well.

In the winter, grass horses at Santa Anita race on a sandy growing element containing 12 percent silt and clay, and a cushion of dormant Bermuda, topped off by a four-inch growth of overseeded perennial rye. The soil is bolstered by plastic turf grids that give the root system extra purchase.

“Every year they come out with a stronger, more disease resistant rye,” Spetnagel said. “But the rye is more for color and cover. Even dormant, it’s the Bermuda under there that we rely on for the cushion.”

Spetnagel and his crew will spend the coming months dodging raindrops and monitoring the course closely. Grass, once established, needs to be watched like a hawk.

“When the course stays wet for a prolonged period of time, a number of problems can come up,” Spetnagel said. “Everything from being too soft to run on, to there being optimum conditions for disease. We always worry about some sort of fungus that starts eating away at the grass, and that affects the strength of the course. When we know we’re getting heavy rains we’re out there with fungicides trying to prevent those diseases.”

Do not think for a minute the Santa Anita grass course has enjoyed an uninterrupted glide through history. It was originally installed in time for the 1954 season. By the mid-1980s, the clay in the soil had come to dominate the sandy loam and the ground became so hard that no amount of aeration could loosen its grip. Commencing in 1983 and continuing over the next dozen years, management tried a number of solutions, spending every bit as much on a series of grass courses that they did on the synthetic ordeal of the past four years.

They finally got it right, and under the guidance of course superintendant Leif Dickinson and now Spetnagel the Santa Anita grass has enjoyed an excellent reputation. On Monday, the first step in Santa Anita’s graduated program of grass racing for all-comers begins with the $150,000 San Gabriel Stakes at 1 1/8 miles. The race carries Grade 2 status, which means it must be doing something right, mixing and matching established runners with late-inning 3-year-olds confronting their elders for the first time.

As of midweek, Art Sherman had his Hollywood Derby winner Haimish Hy under consideration for the San Gabriel. It was the second Hollywood Derby winner with which Sherman has been associated, having worked for Rex Ellsworth and galloped Swaps, who won the race in 1955 when it was called the Westerner.

“Everybody needs to be around a horse like that at least once in their life, just to find out how fast they can be,” Sherman said.

Whether or not he runs Haimish Hy on Monday depends on things like the weather, the competition, and which side of the bed Sherman gets up on when the day comes he must decide. As a 25 percent owner as well as trainer, he gets to have those conversations with himself.

“I was looking here at the Santa Anita stakes schedule, and there’s an awful lot of grass races to choose from,” Sherman said. “Then there’s those races for 4-year-olds on the main track. His grass races have been awesome, but he’s run good on dirt, too. I mean synthetics. But it’s dirt now, right? He’s never run on dirt, so we’d have to find out, wouldn’t we?”

Hamlet’s got nothing on a horse trainer.

“I’m just kind of sitting here hoping he has a good Santa Anita meet,“ Sherman said with a laugh. “It’s fun to be in this position.“