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Profile: Leif Dickinson, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club Racetrack -- A Race Against Time

An Interview by Leslie McGuire






Leif Dickinson not only has degrees in Agriculture and horticulture, in addition, he also has a Pesticide Control License, a Pesticide Applicator's License, as well as being a certified arborist and an irrigation technologist and certified backflow specialist. Photo by Leslie McGuire


Imagine a field of ten horses racing on the average golf or sports turf. Imagine having to keep the turf safe for five to six days a week, two or more races a day for up to five and a half months in Southern California. "When a field of 10 horses together weighing 12,000 pounds is running for the finish line," says Leif Dickinson, Turf and Landscape Superintendent at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club Race Track in Southern California, "it feels like an earthquake."

Leif Dickinson could not be more perfectly suited for his job at Del Mar. He spent 15 years working at the Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia. He has a degree in Agriculture from the University of Maine plus a degree in horticulture from Mount San Antonio in Walnut, California. In addition, he also has a Pesticide Control License, a Pesticide Applicator's License, as well as being a certified arborist and an irrigation technologist and certified backflow specialist.






Del Mar is one of the top turf tracks in the country. Dickinson and his crew of only five people start at 6:00 AM every day during the race season. They work 90 hours a week for 10 weeks. The rest of the time they work 40 to 60 hours a week. Photo courtesy of Pacific Sod


Safety First

No other turf sport needs more wear tolerance from the surface than horse racing does. At full speed, horses land on one leg at a time and exert over 5000 pounds per square inch of force. A surface that is too hard causes extreme injuries. A surface that is too soft causes the turf to tear and divot excessively, ultimately creating a mine field of holes that is very unsafe as well. Horseracing is a sport that involves both humans and equine athletes traveling up to 40 miles per hour, where the risk of serious injury or even death can occur for both horse and jockey. "Remember Barbaro this year in his run for the Triple Crown?" asks Dickinson. "Horses get injured every day, some minor, some serious and catastrophic. A safe turf or dirt surface is the superintendent's first line of defense and the one we, as managers, have at least some control over."






The morning after the last race of the season, they scalp the turf down to 3/8 of an inch, vacuum up, roll the turf, patch the holes and do a deep core aeration to break up the compaction. Photo by Leslie McGuire


How Many Hours in a day?

Del Mar is one of the top two tracks in the country. The other is Saratoga. Dickinson and his crew of only five people start at 6:00 AM every day during the race meet. They work 90 hours a week for 10 weeks. The rest of the time they work 40 to 60 hours a week. "Sometimes I feel as if I'm married to the turf," he says, laughing. "Tuesday is our only day off--and we can get everything done on Tuesday." But they have no days off from July 5th when the race meet starts until September 10th when the race meet ends.

Then, as if that wasn't enough, just getting ready for the racing season is tough. There are only two weeks between the time the San Diego County Fair closes and the race meet starts! "We put in between one and two flat bed trucks of plantings each day for 14 days," says Dickinson. "That's about 40,000 plants and it all needs to look beautiful. I choose plants for their contrasting colors and interesting textures."






The Del Mar track is between 50 and 73 feet wide depending on the placement of the rails. They move the rails from 0-feet to 7-feet to 14-feet on the homestretch and 0-feet and 7-feet on the backstretch to change the running patterns and avoid too much sustained damage to the turf. Photo by Leslie McGuire


Anti-Golf Turf

Horse racing is the only sport without industry standard criteria for the composition of the turf profile. Each track does its own thing and information is rarely shared between tracks. However, it is common to have 10 or more starters per race, with the average being 8 per race. The average on a race track is to have 2.25 turf races per day over the entire race meet. Del Mar runs about 100 turf races in seven weeks. In addition, the horses train or workout on the turf course. Training is allowed on turf four days a week at Del Mar and averages 15 horses training per day.

Dickinson's problem was finding a Bermudagrass that would tolerate the cool coastal temperatures and be very tough. They started with test plots and did test runs over the winter until they found one. Now Del Mar has a new turf track planted with Pacific Sod's GN-1TM Hybrid Bermudagrass sod. Dickinson selected GN-1 because it had been installed on two sections of the track the previous season and had been subject to heavy wear and held up exceptionally well. The dark color and even texture were very appealing but it turned out to be the aggressive growth in the cooler coastal climate in Del Mar that was most important. Most Bermudagrass likes it to be 80 to 85 degrees. In addition, they irrigate with reclaimed water so the grass had to be sodium tolerant. Not only that, this grass hasn't gone dormant or turned brown in two years, even though it went down to 29 degrees in December of 2005.






Once the scalping is complete, they vacuum up all the cuttings. They also Verti-drain and top dress the turf one or two times a year. The staff vertical slices from April through June and rolls the turf as needed during the race season. Photo by Leslie McGuire


Unbelievable Daily Wear and Tear

The turf track at Del Mar is seven-eights of a mile long, and after each race on the turf track, Dickinson's crew walks the entire course checking and repairing divots and plugging holes or ruts that develop in the surface. They do tamping after each race and after the morning workouts. Three to four groups of people cover 1/3 of a mile each, depending on the race schedule. They also move the rails from 0-feet to 7-feet to 14-feet on the homestretch and 0-feet and 7-feet on the backstretch to move the running patterns to avoid too much sustained damage to the turf.

Their cultural practices include spiking during the race meet, mowing to four inches and aeration five times a year. Core removal is done everyday depending on wear. They also Verti-drain and top dress the turf one or two times a year. The staff vertical slices from April through June and rolls the turf as needed during the race meet.

During the meet season, they water lightly each night for about five minutes, rarely more. Then each day, the crew hand waters before and after each race because even watering is critical to avoid hard and soft spots. Off season, the turf is watered deeply, one or two inches per irrigation cycle and during rain events. They then let the soil dry down between irrigations.






During the race season, they water lightly each night for about five minutes, rarely more. Then each day, the crew hand waters before and after each race because even watering is critical to avoid hard and soft spots. Here, the truck is wetting down the dirt track. Photo by Leslie McGuire


Keep it Perfect, Please

They do soil and tissue sampling at least three times a year, and their agronomics are based on the current site conditions and the results they get from the soil samples. Both liquid and dry fertilizers are applied, plus calcium, pre-emergents, fungicides, growth regulators wetting agents and biologicals as needed. The calcium is applied once a year to take advantage of winter rains, usually at 20 pounds per 1000, and applied through an injector with each cycle for Na and Ph reduction. As for pre-emergents, Dickinson says he looks for products that will not root prune at all such as Ronstar G and Gallery.

"The herbicides we use are Drive for the Kikuyu, Mecomec for Swinecress, manage for Nutsedge and Revolver for Poa," he says. "We use Primo growth regulator starting February and Pro-Gib and Alfalfa Tea from November through January."

The morning after the last race of the season, they scalp the turf down to 3/8 of an inch, vacuum up, roll the turf, patch the holes do a deep core aeration to break up the compaction and give the entire track a big flush to eliminate the build up of salts and nitrates. The whole process takes them three full days.

This will put the cushion back so it will be green and ready for the horses at the next race meet. And then it's time for Dickinson and his crew to slow back down to a mere 40 to 60 hours per week--for a while at least.

The History: Hobnobbing With the Great and the Near Great






Photos courtesy of Pacific Sod


When Del Mar opened in 1937, Bing Crosby was at the gate to personally greet the fans. On August 12, 1938, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club hosted a $25,000 winner-take-all match race between Charles S. Howard’s Seabiscuit and the Binglin Stable’s colt, Ligaroti.

In an era when horse racing ranked second in popularity with Americans to Major League Baseball, the match race was much written and talked about and was the first nationwide broadcast of a thoroughbred race by NBC radio.

In the race, Seabiscuit was ridden by jockey George Woolf and Ligaroti by Noel Richardson.

In front of a record crowd that helped make the fledgling Del Mar race track a success, Seabiscuit won an exciting battle by a nose.






Horse racing is the only sport without industry standard criteria for the composition of the turf profile. Each track does its own thing and information is rarely shared. However, it is common to have 10 or more starters per race. Photo courtesy of Pacific Sod


By 1940, Del Mar became the summer playground for many Hollywood stars.

Between 1942 and 1944 the facility was closed due to the Second World War.

The first Bing Crosby Handicap was held at Del Mar in 1946 and that same year the Sante Fe Railroad began offering a racetrack special bringing spectators, bettors and horses to Del Mar from Los Angeles.

Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s the track became the Saratoga of the West for summer racing. The track had large purses for many stakes, over half of which were won by the legendary jockey, Bill Shoemaker.



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October 17, 2019, 6:47 am PDT

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