07/18/2004 11:00PM

Turf course gets overhaul


DEL MAR, Calif. - For the last three months, Leif Dickinson has looked toward opening day at Del Mar with guarded anticipation.

Recently hired as the track's grounds superintendent, Dickinson has taken over responsibility for the condition of Del Mar's seven-furlong turf course, which was widely criticized last year for being too hard and too fast.

Course records were set over the five distances most frequently contested - five furlongs, one mile, 1 1/16 miles, 1 1/8 miles, and 1 3/8 miles. By the end of last year's meeting in early September, some horsemen were avoiding the surface.

To combat the speedy times and make the course more forgiving to horses and popular with their connections, Dickinson made several changes.

The length of the grass, a blend of Bermuda and Kikuyu, was extended from 2 1/2 to three inches. A large section of the course that was subjected to considerable wear was resodded. The number of five-furlong races, which cause greater wear on the course, has been reduced. In addition, experiments were launched on an outside portion of the backstretch, with an eye toward developing future grass types.

How these changes will affect the course will be known beginning on Wednesday, when three races on the opening program are scheduled for grass.

Dickinson joined Del Mar on a full-time basis in April after working in a similar job at Santa Anita. He said he is hopeful that the course will be well received.

On Monday, 19 horses had workouts on the course. Jockey Kent Desormeaux worked horses and then walked the course.

"If we could have the racetrack we had this morning, we'd be in heaven," Desormeaux said. "Its soft, and it has perfect cushion."

Desormeaux expressed concern, though, that the course may not withstand the rigors of racing.

"What we learned this morning is it's too soft," he said. "If it stays like that, we'll tear it up and it won't recover before we go over it again. There's a lot of racing coming."

Dickinson said that part of the difficulty in managing the turf course is finding a blend of grasses that will hold up to the demands of racing. Among the challenges unique to Del Mar are a soil system affected by the nearby ocean and a mild summertime climate that is not always conducive to grass growth.

The course was resodded before the 2001 meeting after jockeys complained that horses could not get footing and that the course showed considerable wear midway through the meeting.

Since then, the Del Mar grass has visibly resembled the grass at Santa Anita, which is short, like the first cut of rough on a golf course. Both courses play fast.

The most visible change is a resodded section that extends along the inside rail of the stretch, from the infield chute to the first turn. A similar section was resodded at the three-eighths pole, an area that suffers from heavy wear. Dickinson said the course was resodded with a Bermuda grass that is slightly different than the one used at Santa Anita and was then overseeded with rye grass.

"We overseeded it with rye grass to give it some cushion, or it would have been too hard," Dickinson said. "We try to manage what the Bermuda wants, what the Kikuyu wants, and what the rye grass overseed wants. This has got what we think is a pretty nice cushion on it. It's almost three inches."

On the backstretch, Dickinson is conducting an experiment in an area closest to the outside rail that will be used primarily during turf workouts. Sections have been installed featuring Bermuda, a hybrid of Kikuyu, and fescue. "I wanted to keep it out of the racing lane," he said.

Over the course of the season, Dickinson will examine how the sections withstand racing and gauge opinions from jockeys.

"What will really tell is how it transitions out of the race meet and how it comes back in the winter and spring," he said. "We just have to find the right mix. Before we do something, we want to make sure it's the right thing."