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The Grass is Always Greener…

When it comes to Canterbury Park’s turf course the old axiom that the grass is always greener (on the other side of the fence) carries a great deal of weight with the fellows who tend the track’s emerald hued track. They do all they can to make sure that the green is evenly distributed.

If it sometimes seems like the fences are constantly moving, that the width of the turf course changes sizes like the waist-line on a perpetual dieter, they probably are. The turf course was seventy feet wide on Saturday but it will be fifty feet wide next week and maybe sixty feet the week after.

It doesn’t happen overnight, either. It generally takes the grass crew of six two days or more to measure and move the rails in or out from the previous measurement. The changes are made to let a given portion of the track “heal” after races are run over it, and those changes must take into account upcoming races.

Stakes races are run over 70- or sixty-foot widths to allow for possible 12-horse fields. When the rails are moved to a fifty-foot width, the field is limited to 10 horses. A forty-foot width will accommodate an eight-horse field.

A grass course takes special attention to detail not necessary with a dirt track, and track superintendent Ian Gamble would rather error on the side of caution than risk damaging the turf that has become such an attractive part of Canterbury Park’s racing program. He is probably extra cautious early in the season, as might have been the case last weekend.

All eight grass races were shifted to the main track last weekend because of Gamble’s concerns about the soggy nature of the track.

“I didn’t want to risk tearing it up,” he said. “Then we’d spend most of the summer trying to get it back into shape. We would have shredded it, the ground was so soggy.”

More important is the safety of the riders and the horses. A horse whose foot sinks into a wet piece of ground risks leg and foot injuries and puts his rider in jeopardy at the same time.

“My job as track superintendent is to make sure both of our racing surfaces are as safe as we can make them for the horses and jockeys,” Gamble added.

‘The decision to move races off the turf is made after Gamble confers with track president/CEO Randy Sampson and racing secretary Doug Schoepf.

“I give them my recommendation,” he said. “And we go from there.”

Turf supervisor Tom Miller tests the turf course every day there are races scheduled on it, taking soil samples at all 16 poles. “It might be different here than it is on the turn on the south end where there is a lot of clay,” he said.

Gamble and Miller also use a gauge that tests the moisture content of the soil. “A reading of three to five is good,” Miller said. “Less than three is too dry. More than five is too wet.”

A severe reading will take precedence in a case where other readings are tolerable.

Canterbury’s turf course is a combination of grasses; 80 percent of it is Kentucky Bluegrass with the remaining types a combination of perennial and annual seeds.

“Right now it’s as good as it gets,” Gamble said Saturday. “I’d put it up against any turf course in the country.”

Keeping it that way requires a great deal of attention.

The course is fertilized every five weeks during the summer months and aerated three times.

“Last year during the shutdown, we aerated and fertilized and we moved it every third day to keep it at six inches.”

Gamble has been keeping the length of the grass at six to six and one-half inches for the last several years. “That way the horses don’t get into the roots right away,” he explained.

The other half of the grass crew goes to work immediately after a race, repairing divots where they can and smoothing out indentations the best they can.

To keep the turf course luscious and green, the grass is watered whenever needed by the irrigation system that includes 28 zones and four to five sprinkling heads per zone. “It is a 30-year-old system, though,” Gamble added, “so once in a while when a head fails we have to get the truck out and hand water those areas that are missed.”

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.