07/11/2001 11:00PM

Track paid heavy greens fee

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - When it comes right down to it, the management of a racetrack has very few responsibilities. Open the doors. Clean the bathrooms. Run the races on time. Count the money. Just about everything else is either a variation on the theme, or busy work.

Then there is the most important responsibility of all - the racing surface. If a racetrack gets that wrong, the game is over. No amount of public relations can cover for bad ground.

On Monday morning at Del Mar, two days before the season opens next Wednesday, horses will set foot for the first time on a turf course that has been brought back from the dead. This is not an exaggeration. Last summer, 40 years of reliability disappeared in a matter of weeks. By the end of the 2000 meet, last rites were being read. Verdun looked better at the close of World War I. Course management had taken a holiday, and the results were too awful to bear.

In such a situation, there was only one solution. Call Leif. Rhymes with "safe." Last name Dickinson, just like Mike. Leif Dickinson might not wear a red cape and tights, but when it comes to the rescue of imperiled fescue, California turf courses have no greater hero.

Dickinson has been turf course superintendent at Santa Anita Park since 1993. He also lords over the paddock gardens, with their dense flower beds and sculpted olive trees. But that's all window trimming compared with his important work on the grass course.

These days the Santa Anita course is rated the best on the California circuit by trainers and jockeys. This is nothing short of a miracle, since Santa Anita management between 1983 and the mid-1990's seemed to make nothing but mistakes when it came to the simple task of growing grass.

There were errors in irrigation, nightmares in drainage, and colossal miscalculations in something as basic as the selection of grass. By the time Dickinson took over from a variety of experts from outside the racing world, nearly $12 million had been spent in barely a decade on the installation - and removals - of three different Santa Anita grass courses.

Del Mar's turf course dates back to 1960. The grass is kikuya, a native of South Africa that was common in Southern California back then but has since been classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as nothing more than a "noxious weed," and its importation highly restricted. Getting seeds for the course, noted one Del Mar official, "used to be harder than smuggling cocaine." There is no other racetrack in America with a kikuya turf course.

But why change? The kikuya was tough. It survived. And then it was betrayed last year by its keepers. A new irrigation system was deployed, but the settings were miscalculated. By the end of the season, track chief Joe Harper could look at an aerial photograph of the course and see grim brown arcs where thick turf used to grow.

Dickinson was called in to consult last October. His options were not attractive. He was faced with nearly a quarter-mile of ravaged ground, from the mouth of the infield chute to the first turn, that needed immediate replacement. The rest of the course wasn't much better.

"The problem was, no sod farm grows kikuya," Dickinson said. "We found a municipal golf course in Downey that still used kikuya. So we brought in 33,000 square feet of sod for the worst part. The rest of the course we've essentially had to regrow, keeping it low, tight, and dense, with a real good nutrition program."

Dickinson discovered more than just dead grass at Del Mar. The profile - the character of the soil - was too soft, leading to more wear. The prevailing on-shore breezes play havoc with sprinkler settings. High salt content in the soil requires regular attacks with calcium to lower sodium levels.

The course is actually a blend of kikuyu and Bermuda, so a delicate balance had to be struck when feeding and cutting. And since kikuyu has a much shorter dormant season that Bermuda - sometimes none at all - an aggressive off-season maintenance program is vital. Seven weeks of safe use during the meet is impossible without 45 weeks of constant attention.

Del Mar management has had its wake-up call. In order to save the course, Dickinson needed new mowers, new spreaders, new aeration equipment. Reality set in, and upwards of $100,000 has been spent just to make it this far. Now, it will be up to the track to put Dickinson's philosophies to work - for the good of the game.

One week before the Del Mar opener, Dickinson knelt in the middle of the rejuvenated course and described the challenges ahead. The course looked great, lush on top and dense beneath and clipped to a height of 2 3/4 inches. But Dickinson was a long way from smiling.

"I need to let it dry down some, until the profile starts to dry up, but not so dry that it starts affecting the turf," he said. "It's not going to be the prettiest thing once we start racing, because we're going to go in dry.

"But I don't necessarily care how it looks," Dickinson added. "This isn't a lawn, or golf course, or a stadium. The horse is a whole different beast."

Thank goodness someone finally figured that out.