Churchill Downs track superintendent Butch Lehr is in the process of replacing approximately one acre of sod on the 10-acre Matt Winn turf course at the Louisville, Ky., racetrack that will be hosting the Breeders' Cup championships in 2 1/2 months.
Churchill Downs spokesman Darren Rogers said this summer's brutal heat and humidity was the “primary” reason a large section of the course was being replaced. July was the fifth-hottest month ever in Louisville and temperatures hit record highs of 100-plus degrees several days so far in August.
But Rogers acknowledged one section of turf being resodded near the eighth pole was the site of reserved seating for HullabaLOU, the three-day, money-losing music festival that attracted 78,000 revelers to Churchill Downs in late July. Despite specialty protective flooring, the grass in the stage area “became stressed—that's the term Butch has used,” according to Rogers. “It might have bounced back on its own, but Butch didn't want to take that risk. The demands of HullabaLOU added to the stress, but the heat was the primary reason it was replaced.”
Several sections are getting new sod from a 20-acre plot of Kentucky fescue Lehr has access to in Mount Washington, Ky. According to Rogers, parts of the course are resodded almost every year, but this was the largest replacement of sod in over a decade when about two acres on the clubhouse turn was replaced. “The scope of this year's is larger than usual, primarily because of the extreme, sustained heat,” Rogers said. “It's put considerable stress on the turf course just as it has on golf courses in the area.”
Rogers said Lehr, a Churchill employee since 1967 and named track superintendent in 1982, is confident the new sod will take root and be ready in early October, when Breeders' Cup horses are expected to arrive at Churchill Downs. The fall meeting starts Oct. 31 and the Breeders' Cup is Nov. 5-6. Rogers quoted Lehr as saying it takes about two weeks for the sod to “re-weave and take hold with the existing turf and root system. There is plenty of time for the course to be ready.
“We're getting a break from the record temperatures over the next few days,” Rogers said Monday, “but there are no guarantees the cxtreme heat won't return. Butch made the proactive decision to resod to make sure the course is perfect.”
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