Horse Racing

New turf debut at Churchill Downs

Racing isn’t just back Churchill Downs April 30, grass racing too. The track’s $10 million new lawn after construction meant there were no turf races at the most recent September and fall meeting.

Like the TV $6 Million Man, the new Matt Winn Lawn is rebuilt to be better and more powerful than its predecessor. That old version, built starting in 1985, has remained essentially the same since it opened in 1987 when men’s turf champions Manila won the first race, then the second. Early Times Turf Classic.

Initial assessments from the training in the new course were positive.

“From the runner’s first gallop on the track to the first gymnast and the jockey galloping across the track, to the first turf construction we As I’ve seen, we’re delighted with the progress,” said track general manager Mike Ziegler.

One of those early riders, Churchill driver Julien Leparoux, said he was also pleased.

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“The drainage system is very good,” he said. “When I woke up, I think about two or three days (before that), it was pouring rain here, and it felt so good and so fast.”

Leparoux’s assessment of old turf reflects the opinions of other coaches and jockeys interviewed — the old pitch is at its best in the spring period, but it hasn’t held up to the schedule. of year.

“For some reason in the spring the pitch is really good and by the time we come back in September it’s … the opposite of this (new) turf now,” Leparoux said. “It feels like, even if we don’t have any rain, we feel like 10 inches of rain the day before the race. It’s crazy. The horses are going down pretty deep.” He illustrates using his arms to represent deep elbows as if it were a horse’s leg. “Lots of bugs. So I’m glad they fixed it.”

With the old course, “the root system is dead and there’s no growth,” says jockey Declan Cannon. “And it basically needed to be redone. It was on track. It really needed to be replaced.”

“I was happy to see them invest money in it and redo it because the other was pretty much chewed up and it just didn’t stick together,” said Corey Lanerie, another mainstay of the Churchill equestrian colony. “So it will be safer for the horses and runners, and (I’m) looking forward to seeing how that feels.”

Among the biggest changes are the new grass mix, improved drainage and the removal of crowns in the outer part of the old yard. The crown is there for drainage, but effectively removes that part of the course to run.

The old mix was 4-inch-tall Kentucky 31 Fescue (90%) and Bluegrass (10%) grown in 3-inch topsoil on 13-inch-thick masonry. The new course is Tahoma 31 Bermudagrass supervised with rye grass.

“We did a series of studies through our consultants and turf specialists and determined this blend, known as cooler weather Bermuda, would be the right grass. Here, the grass is suitable for Churchill Downs, because of its strength, says Ziegler.

Tracking officials said the new yard has a redesigned bottom surface with a six-inch-long upper root layer created from a mixture of topsoil and grit that sits on top of a six-inch sand-built sandstone. build.

Old streets are usually 80 feet wide. The new track — still a 7/8 mile oval — is uniformly 85 feet wide, but it’s important to remove the crown – a raised crest in the middle – which drains water but effectively limits racing inwards Crown. Both changes help to allow for four rail positions, as opposed to the previous three, and more possibilities for chariot runners and their mounts to race further on the track.

“It’s going to be better because they’ve taken the crown off and a little further now, that’s going to be fair to everyone,” Cannon said. “It’s not going to be a place where you’re going to have to drop right off (inside) on it. It’s going to be a lot fairer ride.”

Ultimately, the changes are expected to feature more grass-based racing.

Of the approximately 700 races in Churchill’s three annual meetings, about a quarter of the competition is on grass. Churchill said in 2019, 43 of the 169 scheduled grass races were done on dirt roads because of weather or turf conditions, Churchill has previously said.

At first, use of the pitch will be similar to the weeks before the Derby, but Ziegler said usage is expected to increase above old levels as the meeting progresses.

With drainage, the new turf includes a new modern irrigation system — aided by a cistern at 4th Street and Central Avenue — with fewer banks at the turnstiles.

“It drains a lot better vertically than before, as opposed to horizontally, down the inside,” says Ziegler. “That’s why the crown was in the past.”

“The cistern now allows us to water the entire turf much faster than we were able to,” he said.

The coach’s rating of the old course reflects the evaluation of the riders.

Coach Chad Brown, who tuned the last three winners of the car to now the Old Forester Turf Classic (G1T), said the new pitch looks beautiful from afar, although he is pleased with the predecessor. .

“For the big race days of years, Breeders’ Cups and Derby, etc,” said Brown, “But like I said in the end, it looks like it needs to be fixed at some point from all of that,” said Brown. the feedback I got from jockey players and coaches from the very beginning before they rip it off.”

Coach Brad Cox at Churchill said the old course was “really good” during the spring and then got worse at the end of the year.

“We’ll see how it plays out,” Cox said. “I think the real test will be this fall when we’ve struggled with it in the past, but I hope it works out.”

Coach Kenny McPeek said his horses have won a lot of races on the old track, but added, “I broke her ankle a few years ago and they started questioning the system. And you don’t usually have a horse with broken ankles or broken on the field. It’s too muddy. But they didn’t think the drainage was working.”

When asked about the role safety plays in turf rehabilitation, Ziegler said, “Previously degraded turf is less conducive to warmer weather and creates challenges towards the end of the year we receive it. “

Coach Todd Pletcher, who will have a Churchill division this year, said he wasn’t at Churchill enough to know the problems of the old course.

“But they seem to be worried enough that they’ve taken some drastic steps and from what I’ve seen of this so far having only watched a few horses train it the day before, it seems is in good shape,” he said. “I guess we’ll know more when we have a little more activity there. But you know, it seems like a proactive move to ensure more grass races and safety conditions. more complete.”

It’s also a testament to the importance of grass racing, says Pletcher, throughout the sport – noting that Gulfstream Park plans to renovate its turf after having installed a synthetic surface with its dirt track.

“Court races are becoming more and more popular and I think racetracks are recognizing the need to be able to offer more opportunities,” says Pletcher.

Runners expect the pitch to improve over time.

“Things will get better as the meeting continues, with growth and more sunshine,” Cannon said.

“I think next year it will be even better,” Leparoux said. “I think the more time we spend, the better it gets.”

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