Del Mar: Turf Course Renovation to Begin at End of Current Meet

by | 08.17.2013 | 9:18am

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,]” Dickinson 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.

  • Yomama

    Are they planning to get rid of the artificial surface as well? That seems to be a real sticking point with the “elite of the east”. They might not bring their horses to the Best Coast or I mean West Coast if they don’t have dirt to run on. They might just take their ball and stay home. Big loss, as already are better than the rest or at least more snobby.

  • zchairman

    I race both in CA. and the, the Midwest and east coast. Based on a large sample of my own horses, I can assure you that Del Mar’s and Keenland’s artificial surfaces are not as safe as most dirt tracks. The thing that is not reported is the number of horses that get hurt so bad in training or in races they can’t race or must be retired but don’t show up in the racing charts as ‘pulled-up or broke vanned-off’. Based on my own experience with over 100 horses, Del Mar’s and Keenland’s artificial surface is far more devastating on training and non fatal injuries. Mostly, the problems are soft tissue and those are the worst kind of injuries.
    Personally, I would not bring any main track horses to the BC if it were held on an artificial surface at Del Mar. My feeling about that mater is held by a large number of high profile owners and trainers in all racing jurisdictions.
    When Hollywood closes (their track is very similar to dirt) CA. is going to have a real problem keeping horses in the state. Most horses like either Polytrack or dirt, but few like both. That will force many owners to move their horses east and they will never return to CA. Del Mar’s ill-advised decision not to put in a safe, world-class dirt course will just be another example of bad decision making by bad management.
    CA racing is headed the way of the ‘Dodo bird’ and dinosaur and I really hate that, because I live in CA, so this is not about east bashing west. CA racing has been in a serious decline for years. It is so bad they just announced the Del Mar simulcasting facility will be permanently closed. Think about this—a few short years ago their average daily attendance was 2,900, today the average is 300!!!

  • MA

    There are about a million other places that need expanding if they think they can safely and pleasantly hold a BC size crowd – a crowd that actually cares about seeing the horses and not just dressing up and getting drunk (though the BC is trying its best to court that crowd now).

  • Jerry

    With the CHRB and TOC leading CA racing, you can guarantee it…..
    It was fun for many years but now it’s over!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Guy Fleegman1

    They will never get a Breeder’s Cup with the polygarbage they have now…it is NOT as safe as dirt and they hide the stats and many many injuries the public never hears about.

    • Hoops and Horses

      Forget the Poly, Del Mar will need LIGHTS installed before it can host the BC. One reason in my view Santa Anita plans to install them is because starting next year is because NBC is likely to want the Breeders’ Cup to begin covering ALL of Saturday prime time and at least an hour of Friday prime time as well. With live sports the only thing that does well on Saturday nights (and to a lesser extent Friday) in the TV ratings nowadays and NBC not being able to have Notre Dame Football (and NASCAR starting in 2015) fill every Saturday night, I suspect we will be seeing the BC going to 11:00 PM ET beginning next year and that will mean ANY track wanting the BC will have to install lights, not just Del Mar.

      • MA

        I doubt one race has that much bearing on Santa Anita’s decision. I think it has more to do with having to run during the summer after Hollywood Park closes. Night racing will have lower temps.

        • Hoops and Horses

          Actually, this has more to do with one race with regards to the BC. The BC Classic will be run in daylight this year, however, starting with 2014, I suspect NBC may very well want the BC to run to 11:00 PM ET both days, which necessitates having lights for the last 3-4 events at Santa Anita.

          Another benefit of the lights is that besides Santa Anita being able to run Friday nights (and have BC races at night), especially after the Olympics Santa Anita and NBC could work out a deal to have a stakes race air from Santa Anita late on Friday nights (early Saturday east coast time) following what is going to I believe become “Late Night With Seth MacFarlane” (as Jimmy Fallon moves to “The Tonight Show”) with the telecast at 1:37 AM ET/PT. Post time for such stakes events can be just before 11:00 PM local time (2:00 AM ET) to allow west coast NBC stations the option of carrying such races live in a five-minute window (with the full telecast airing on a three-hour tape delay in the west). This can give the sport a consistent weekly window that does very well with key demographics that likely in many instances would be just getting home when such a telecast would air. While you might not see the Santa Anita Handicap or Santa Anita Derby in such a window, you could see a good number of significant races in that late Friday window that expose the sport outside the Triple Crown to those younger.

          • Kris

            Hoops, As I recall one of the reasons for the BC remaining in SoCal is due to the fact that NBC likes the current timeslot that they have set for the Classic. Personally, I prefer seeing my grade 1 races run during the daytime.

          • Hoops and Horses

            Kris: That is what NBC (and parent Comcast) would say now. With live sports being the only thing that does decent ratings on Saturday nights, however, that as early as next year may very well change as noted above.

            It also does need to be remembered that the schedules for last year and this were done based on ESPN, NOT NBC having the BC (the college football schedules for instance are set 3-5 years in advance in many cases). Originally, ESPN was supposed to have the BC last year and this, but bailed for the same reason they are bailing on NASCAR (which is FAR more popular) after next year: College Football has become the 400-pound baby gorilla of sports (behind the NFL being the 800-pound gorilla) and dominates ESPN’s schedule in the fall to the point where the NASCAR races were interfering with the CFB schedule.

            In my view, Santa Anita will have lights mainly because NBC will want the BC to go to 11:00 PM ET next year and it also has the side benefit of Santa Anita being able to create a new series of stakes events for television that can air very late Friday night-early Saturday morning on NBC after “Late Night” that can be an educational tool for the sport just like the old “Racing from Roosevelt/Yonkers” shows on WOR-TV (Channel 9) that aired at (mostly) 11:30 PM local time in New York on Thursdays and Saturdays were for Harness Racing in the 1970’s and ’80s.

  • Angry East Coaster

    I think everything sucks in horseracing. The fans, the takeout, racetrack management, medication, jockeys, corrupt trainers, greed owners, people that post negative things. Ahhh, I feel much better.

  • harry

    Del Mar finally fixing turf course. BC on polytrack??? Now when will they start replacing poly with real dirt.90% of BC prep races which are run are run on dirt NOT PLASTIC. Del Mar getting little ahead of themselves. I would bet Gulfstream gets BC before Del Mar. Then again BC hates East Coast and now the BC was supposed to be run at different tracks per year. That obviously has been abolished. I am sure BC will have the final day of races with night racing. That would be a sure winner. First post 500pm regardless with BC Classic at 10:30PM. Oh forgot BC has eliminated all east coast tracks!!! Wow well good thought at time but not in BC plans. Sad so sad!!!! Well could work on West Coast as well!!!!!!!!

  • Kris

    I didn’t know that Del Mar uses salt water on their turf course. I find that fact very interesting.

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