New bermudagrass surface reduces divots, increases wear tolerance
With a name like Turf Paradise, expectations are set pretty high for a glorious grass racing surface. Thanks in part to a recent renovation project and installation of new bermudagrass, that’s exactly what horses, riders, owners and patrons find at the Phoenix, Ariz., facility.
With both a turf track and a dirt track to manage, Bob Beaubien, track superintendent, and his team are kept pretty busy at Turf Paradise. He says that dirt tracks (which have to have a correct depth, clay/silt mix, cushion, firmness, etc.) are actually a little trickier to maintain than turf courses, and turf tracks do seem to be favored by fans. “The handle [amount wagered] of a turf race, on average, is about 30 percent more than on dirt,” explains Beaubien. “The patrons like to bet on turf races a lot more, and there are bigger fields and bigger payouts.”
Knowledgeable racing fans (especially those wagering on the race) know that the racing surface can be just as important a factor as the horses. “Patrons don’t want a track that’s lightning fast one day and slow the next,” explains Beaubien. “They want things to be consistent day to day.”
Beaubien has several decades of experience as track superintendent and has been at Turf Paradise for four years. He inherited a turf track comprised of common bermudagrass. “We started trying to develop the bermuda as thick as we could get it, but by the end of the year it was so chewed up it almost looked like a dirt course,” he explains. “I didn’t know a lot about bermuda, because I came from the Midwest and the East Coast, but I started asking around. George McDermott [track superintendent at Lone Star Park in Texas] told me that the product he’s using there is called Tifway 419. It’s a hybrid grass that develops very, very strong root growth and a real dense top surface that feels like carpet when you walk on it.”
Beaubien continued his research, wanting to be sure he was confident in the grass selection before the investment was made. “I watched the horses go over the Lone Star track and noticed that very few divots flew out of it,” he explains. That sold him on the idea of Tifway 419, and the project was approved at Turf Paradise.
The first step was to remove the existing turf and prepare the surface. “I peeled everything off the turf course, GPS-graded it and got everything back to where it was supposed to be,” says Beaubien. The track was then tilled and the new bermudagrass was sprigged. “We probably should have spent a little more to hydro-sprig it on,” he says. “The week we chose to do it was very hot, so it was a little tough to get enough water on it. We had to have a couple of areas touched up, but then it really took off.”
Unfortunately, the bermudagrass wasn’t the only thing that had started to grow. The tilling stirred up years worth of weed seeds, which started to outcompete the new turfgrass. “We had every weed you could imagine; they just took over. So we had to do several different applications of weed control, and each one of those set us back a little bit as far as the bermudagrass maturing and growing together,” he explains.
As the weeds were eliminated, there were some thin spots, so the area was overseeded with Princess bermuda. “I was concerned that we’d have two different colors out there, but once that matured, you couldn’t tell the difference between the Princess and the 419,” Beaubien adds.
The sprigging started in mid-June and, thanks to a lot of hard work, the turf track was ready when Turf Paradise’s racing season started the first week of October. Even with only about four months to mature and the weed pressure along the way, the 419 held up better in its first season than the long-established common bermudagrass ever did.
“We had a really good year, with an increase of about 25 percent in the number of races we ran on the course, and it held up very well,” says Beaubien. “The horsemen were very pleased with it last year, and this year it’s going to be even better.”
Last season, Beaubien measured about 5 inches of “matted root growth” in the thickest areas on the track surface. “That’s what eliminates the divots that horses make when they’re running over common bermudagrass.” This year, he says, the root growth is even more advanced. “Everything has connected and we have a really beautiful course.”
Turf Paradise has three “stations,” and can move the rail to spread wear out over three areas of the turf to allow two areas to be recovering when racing is taking place on a third. A crew of three mows, aerates, irrigates and performs all of the additional maintenance required.
The track at Turf Paradise boasts a Rain Bird irrigation system, and Beaubien says he’s always on the lookout for heads that will provide the best possible coverage, especially given the frequent number of windy days. Even coverage is critical when irrigating a turf racing surface, he explains. “You can walk over a course, and if it has a spot that’s overwatered or underwatered, you won’t feel it, but the horse will feel it. If they sense the ground being hard-soft-hard-soft, it’s very difficult for the horses. They make their adjustments for the next stride when their foot hits the ground; if he slips a little, his mind tells him to change his stride a little bit and it changes the way he goes. He’ll only run as fast as his mind is telling him his feet can hold,” he says.
The turf course is overseeded with rye around mid-October. That provides a green course while the dormant bermudagrass continues to provide a strong, stable structure. “We feed it all year to make sure that the roots stay healthy; they store that food down there and we get really good bounce-back in the spring,” Beaubien explains.
Fertilizer and gypsum are applied regularly to keep the fertility up and the pH down. “We’ve got 9.5 acres of grass,” he says. The turf is mowed about twice weekly prior to the racing season, with a goal of keeping the grass cut to about 2 inches “and growing sideways,” Beaubien adds. “That thickens everything up, and the less plant there is aboveground the better the root structure gets.”
After experimenting with a golf course-type fairway mower, which could cut only up to 1 7/8 inches, the grass was getting too thick for it to cut. So, Beaubien has switched to using a Bobcat zero-turn rotary mower. “We put new blades on every time we mow it,” he says. “It does a nice job. It only has a 5-foot cut, so it takes a while, but it’s more important that everything comes out even.” Once the ryegrass establishes, the mowing height is raised up to about 4 inches.
Until the horses hit the track in the fall, nothing bigger than a mower or golf cart is allowed on the turf. “If something heavier has to cross it, we’ll put plywood down,” say Beaubien. The turf course is grown on a medium that’s more than 90 percent sand. As is the case at Churchill Downs, there’s also a special plastic liner below the sand. “If it rains, you can close the valves in it to maintain the moisture for the roots, or if the irrigation system sticks open in a certain area, we can open the valve in the liner in that area, put a vacuum unit on it and suck the moisture out. It gives us a lot of control,” says Beaubien.
In addition to a dedicated maintenance crew, Beaubien credits the stellar track conditions to information he’s able to gain from other colleagues in the industry. “We have a group of track superintendents from around the country and we have a field day every year. That gives you a chance to pick the minds of the best people in the country; if you’re having a problem with a certain aspect, it really helps to be able to ask someone else if they’ve had a similar problem and how they fixed it,” he says.
That willingness to share hasn’t always been around in the industry. “Back in the old days, if you worked at a racetrack, you didn’t tell anyone anything about what you were doing,” says Beaubien. “Nowadays it’s so important, because a track superintendent’s responsibility is to the horse and rider, trying to get them around the track safely. So, whether it’s a turf or dirt track, the surface has to be in the best condition you can possibly get it.”
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.