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A Wider, Better Turf Course Is Coming Soon To Del Mar

By GENE WILLIAMS

A little piece of California desert will be coming to Del Mar in a few months and officials here are hopeful a Breeders’ Cup Championship weekend won’t be far behind.

The relocation of a hunk of the Coachella Valley to a spot famous for cool Pacific Ocean breezes and top-notch Thoroughbred racing will take the form of a new and improved turf course for Del Mar Thoroughbred Club to be unveiled on opening day of the 2014 racing meet.

Work will begin when this year’s meeting ends September 4 and – all things being equal and the weather playing its usual part -- Leif Dickinson, the man in charge of the course where the turf meets the surf, expects the Coachella-grown grass to find a new home in the track’s infield, perhaps by as early as January 1.

The new, wider course is expected to open the way for the Breeders’ Cup possibly to make its Del Mar debut as early as 2015. The need for the new course seemed the final obstacle to overcome if racing’s worldwide championships were to be contested at Del Mar.

The turf course will be widened to 80 feet from the present width that varies from 63 feet to 52 feet on the straightaways and to 56 and 54 feet on the turns. That means uniformity will be the order of the day. “That will be the biggest thing,” Dickinson said. “Giving uniformity to the course, with a good irrigation system and the ability for multiple rail movement is the No. 1 thing we’re doing.”

When talking about rail movement, Dickinson gets downright excited, saying:

“Right now we have three rail movements [to help minimize wear on the inside paths on the course]. But with the new course we have the capacity to do as many as six moves.”

The chute from where races at 1-1/16 and 1-1/8 miles start will be widened to 65 feet from its current 60. That easily will allow for 12 contestants in those races, where the present chute allows only 10 runners for safety purposes. “At 80 feet wide, the oval will be able to accommodate any Breeders’ Cup race [where as many as 14 horses must be able to compete,]" Dickinon noted. "But since the Breeders’ Cup doesn’t run any grass races at 1-1/8 or 1-1/16 miles the chute will not be a factor. However, we could even put 14 in the gate if we had to in the chute.”

The chute’s new width does create a major change in those races – all for the good. “The turn [onto the main part of the course] is very sharp now, but it will be significantly softer,” Dickinson said. “That was one of our prime directives – to soften that turn.”

Why grow the turf in such a sweltering place as the Coachella Valley, far to the east of Del Mar? “The GN-1 [Greg Norman-1] Bermuda [grass] likes hot weather,” Dickinson said. “It grows better there and we can grow a thicker, stronger turf, so that when we bring it over we’ll have a better course to start."

The project began October 1, 2012 with the planting of vegetative sprigs of grass in a 12-acre plot. “When we first saw the area, it was planted in potatoes,” Dickinson, who has degrees in agri-business and horticulture, said. The tall, tanned turf expert said the project is overseen by the Pacific Sod Company and is to be grown under Del Mar’s mowing and fertility program. Dickinson expects to get his latest up close and personal look at the operation later this month. He says he has been told it is “thriving.”

“What we want is a thick, dense grass, as tight as possible,” he said. “The first line of defense in such a project is to keep the hoof from penetrating the turf.” The tougher the turf, the better chance of that happening, he said.

Bermuda is the grass of choice because it can withstand the reclaimed water used at Del Mar. Such reclaimed water has a salt content that is tolerated by Bermuda but not by most other grasses.

Dickinson said he expects the old turf course – originally installed in 1960 -- to be totally gone inside a month. The heavy lifting on the job will be done by the Koch-Armstrong company of nearby El Cajon, the general engineering firm that installed Del Mar’s Polytrack main track in 2007.

He noted that a total of 12 acres of grass is currently being grown in Coachella and, prior to its installation at Del Mar, he’ll select the best 10.5 acres for use. The remaining grass will be sold to other users.

With the widening, Del Mar’s turf course thus will grow from its current 7.7 acres to the expanded 10.5.

The new course also will be installed with two special features that the current one does not offer – pathways across it for access to the track’s infield, a need on the Fairgrounds throughout the year outside of racing season, especially so when the large San Diego Fair is held during June/July each year.

Following a format that has been successfully employed by Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, TX,  the pathways – approximately 16-feet wide and 14-inches deep – will be poured near the track’s seven-eighths and half-mile poles. When racing is ongoing, turf trays that are 8-feet by 8-feet and 14 inches deep will interlock on top of the pathways to allow for seamless grass racing. Reports from riders and horsemen at the Houston track indicate no problems with the procedure and that racing on it is held readily without problems.

Barring a spate of bad weather this fall – something that would be an anomaly in the Del Mar area – Dickinson is planning on meeting his January 1 installation deadline.

“I believe we’ll definitely have the area ready for turf installation by the beginning of the new year,” he said. “That’s not to say the grass will go in then. It could be that we’d choose to leave that grass out in the desert for a bit longer to grow, but that will be a call we’ll make when the time is upon us. We’ll pick an optimal time, then go.”

Then, it will be a case of letting the roots go down and the turf take hold. And, while that same old surf continues to slap nearby, a brand new turf will be taking shape for racing at Del Mar in 2014.