06/24/2003 11:00PM

Watching grass grow. It's a living.


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The weather in California has been just awful. Awful, I say! Oh sure, we've heard about a little drizzle in the East. And apparently there has been the odd flood in the Midwest. But in California, do you know what we've been dealing with?

Clouds. Yes, clouds. And cool weather, too, with temperatures many times plummeting as low as 60 degrees.

So far, Californians have suffered in silence. Barbecues always can be put on hold. Tans are unhealthy anyway. But now, the gloves are off, because the weather in California over the past few months has played havoc with the growing cycle of our beloved cynodon dactylon, a prostrate stoloniferous perennial herb of critical importance. It is an immutable fact of life that when you mess with the cynodon dactylon, grass racing at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita suffers.

Since cynodon dactylon is hard to type, let's just use its common term - Bermuda grass. As any schoolchild knows, Bermuda requires temperatures in the 70's to thrive. Cool weather makes Bermuda very, very shy, which in turn drives the grasskeepers at Hollywood Park to distraction over the miserable growing weather they have experienced throughout the spring and now into the summer.

Right now, the Hollywood Park turf is not a pretty sight. That is a shame, because it is a grand, sweeping layout, with a dramatic 1 1/4-mile chute, two long straights and tactically tricky turns. Over the next three weekends there will be five major grass races presented, headlined by the $750,000 American Oaks on July 5.

But no matter how good the fields, it is hard to ignore the ground beneath their feet, and something has to be done. You don't want Olivier performing on a creaky stage. That is why there were two guys wandering around the outfield at Chavez Ravine on Wednesday morning, with their heads down and their minds a long way from the race atop the National League West.

One of them was Leif Dickinson, turf course superintendent at Santa Anita Park. The other was John Barrios, who holds similar rank at Hollywood Park. They have been colleagues for years, and they are both in the same boat when it comes to the effects of weather on their work. They were at Dodger Stadium looking for a possible solution to the California cool.

Hats off to Santa Anita management for sharing Dickinson's considerable talents for turf course maintenance. He and his crew have developed the West's best grass at Santa Anita (which will be on display this fall for the Breeders' Cup), and Dickinson has consulted with both Hollywood Park and Del Mar regarding their courses. Barrios was a top aide to Dickinson at Santa Anita before taking the Hollywood position.

"We talk every day," Dickinson said. "John is faced with a course that is basically pretty beaten up by the end of their fall meet. Bermuda doesn't want to grow in the winter, then to get hit with a cool spring, everything just kind of snowballs."

To deal with the problem short term, Barrios and his Hollywood crew have been plugging the worst parts of the course with healthy sod, patch by patch. It is not the ideal solution, but it is a quick and effective fix.

"Each plug is a core of sod about a foot in diameter and about eight inches deep," Dickinson explained. "You pull out the old divot, put the new plug in, and you can't even tell there was a divot there. During live racing, we will do hundreds and hundreds of them.

Dickinson is one of those ecumenical racing professionals who prefers to let the horses do the competing. As far as he is concerned, there should be no secrets among course superintendents, only sharing of insights and technological advancements. The health of horses and jockeys - not to mention the daily handle - is at stake.

So don't be surprised to see Dickinson turn up at racetracks all over the country, probing the ground and picking brains, like he did at Churchill Downs last spring. He returned to California ready to try something called a turf blanket, which is exactly what it sounds like.

"At Churchill, they'll cover two or three acres of their turf course every spring - the areas that seem to come in last," Dickinson said. "And they happen to have the same blankets at Dodger Stadium that Churchill uses.

"The blankets let water pass through while raising soil temperatures between eight and 10 degrees," Dickinson went on. "That's what we need to get our grass to grow. Even if we can't afford to do the whole track at Hollywood, we'd like to cover the really bad areas - at least four or five acres. I'll probably do the same thing at Santa Anita, because I'm having the same trouble in a few key areas."

Dickinson noted that the long term forecast calls for more of the same coastal gloomy weather through August.

"Not to make any excuses," he said, "but I've been in California for 16 years, and this has been the worst Bermuda weather I can ever remember."

It may be time for everyone to order extra blankets.