Extreme maintenance and recovery challenges on New York turf race courses

Dozens of galloping race horses can do a lot of damage to turf courses, but the New York Racing Association uses a comprehensive maintenance and recovery program to stay ahead of the pack.
Photos courtesy of New York Racing Association.

Most turf managers try to limit compaction, foot traffic and wear areas in order to keep the turf healthy. For Glen Kozak, director of racing surfaces for the New York Racing Association, which operates three horse tracks in the state with turf surfaces, these challenges are a fact of life. He knows his turf is going to take a beating every time dozens of race horses take to the starting gate and tear around the track. He can’t prevent the damage, but he does have a comprehensive management plan to minimize, spread out and recover from the damage.

Belmont Park is home to the Belmont Stakes, the final leg each year in horse racing’s Triple Crown. Belmont boasts two turf courses: the Widener (1 5/16 mile) and Inner (1 3/16 miles). There are also three dirt tracks. Kozak also oversees one turf course (7/8 mile) at Aqueduct and three turf courses (one training and two racing) at Saratoga. “We run a lot of turf races in New York,” he says.

The racing season is different at each of these facilities, and the courses must be maintained accordingly. At Belmont, racing on the turf ends in October and begins again in early May, and is in use through mid-July the following year. During July and August, while the horses are racing at Saratoga, the Belmont courses undergo a more comprehensive renovation before racing begins again in the fall. “We’ll cut the whole course down low and sweep it,” says Kozak. “We’ll do our Verti-Drain work, and if there are any extensive wear areas we’ll do some spot-sodding. That gives the grass time to root before the horses return in September.”

The race schedule at Saratoga works out best from a turf management perspective, says Kozak. With racing in late July, August and early September, there’s plenty of time—at an ideal time of the year—to get the turf renovated in the fall. The grass also gets a chance to continue its recovery in the spring before the horses arrive again in July.

“In the fall, we don’t race at Aqueduct until the last week of October, then we race there until early December, so it’s difficult to get the grass to recover after the season.” Several years ago, the grass at Aqueduct was changed to tall fescue; all of the other courses are bluegrass. Kozak recently began using turf covers during the winter, particularly at Aqueduct, where spring racing season starts early. “I had never used covers before, but after seeing what they can do I’m amazed. We put them on right after Christmas and the difference in the spring, when we’re trying to get on the courses, is dramatic,” he says. “We’ve now bought enough to do the entire Aqueduct course.”

During race seasons, the turf is typically mowed at 4 to 4.5 inches. During the off-season, however, the turf is mowed lower to allow for renovation and large vacuums are used to remove clippings.

NYRA’s turf tracks are mainly older, well-established courses, a fact that also dictates maintenance practices. “Many new turf races courses are sand-based, and really take the water well,” says Kozak. Two years ago, sub-surface drainage was installed at one of the Belmont courses. “It’s worked out fantastic,” he says. “That had always been an area that held too much moisture, but now it’s great.” About 5 acres of new sod was put down as part of that project.

The rest of the NYRA turf tracks, however, have only basic sub-surface engineering, so sand is added following core aeration, just to help a little with drainage. Kozak says there needs to be a balance when it comes to the soil make-up on horse racing courses. “There are different philosophies on sand-based courses. They handle the water really well so you can get out on it quickly, but there can be issues about whether the roots on a sand-based course can stand up to the wear and tear,” he explains.

Perhaps the most important practice in distributing wear and tear is the use of portable rail systems to isolate specific sections of the track for racing, while letting the rest of the grass recover. This helps spread the wear and tear throughout the entire turf area, similar to the way a superintendent moves tee markers around on a tee box to distribute damage and let the grass recover. “We start at the inside and then move the portable rail out. That gives the horses fresh ground to run on,” Kozak says. “That also gives us time to renovate the turf that the horses have run on and get the course back together.”

The weather and how well the courses hold up determine the frequency with which the portable rail system is moved, typically 9 to 12 feet at a time. “We try to set up a rail schedule for every two weeks, but there are times where we might have to move it after three days of racing,” says Kozak.

In normal circumstances, once the portable rail is moved, the renovation process begins on the turf most recently run on. “We start by walking the turf course and literally hand-tamping the divots,” says Kozak. “Then we use the Verti-Drain. A 1,200-pound animal coming down on an area the size of your fist can create a lot of compaction, so the Verti-Drain is one of our most important tools.”

To help alleviate compaction, Verti-Drain aeration is an important maintenance practice for Glen Kozak, NYRA director of racing surfaces, and the maintenance teams at Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct. Sand is often added after core aeration to help improve drainage on the tracks.

Bad weather, however, can cause a turf course to quickly become torn up and require both frequent rail moves and more aggressive recovery methods. “There are times when the horses are running on the turf when conditions aren’t optimal,” explains Kozak. As long as it’s safe, certain important races will run regardless of the damage that will be done to the turf. “We had an inch-and-a-quarter of rain before one of our biggest races last year, and we still had to run it,” he recalls. “It was safe, but you could just see the divots flying out there. It’s tough to recover after a race like that. To avoid compaction, we try to roll the turf courses as little as possible, but after that race was one of the times we had to do it, just to get the course level again.”

Regardless of the weather conditions, the turns seem to take the most wear, says Kozak. “It’s just like on a car race track, where you see most of the rubber on the turns.” Many of the NYRA turf tracks are so large there often are one-turn races, in which the horses come around just one of the turns and head down the back stretch to the finish line.

The turf tracks are regularly probed for hardness and the moisture level is tested, but there are no firm regulations in this regard for racing. However, the data helps Kozak manage the turf, especially on older courses that don’t have uniform drainage and sub-surface construction. “One area might need 15 minutes of irrigation, but another area needs 25 minutes. That’s why probing is so important,” he says. “Our crews do a great job of keeping up with that.” At Belmont, the turf courses are managed by two superintendents and 18 crew members. “In addition to caring for the course, they mow all the infields-that’s roughly 40 acres at Belmont-prune the hedges and take care of everything inside the main race rail,” says Kozak.

Belmont and Aqueduct both have underground irrigation systems; Saratoga uses an agricultural style aboveground pipe system. Rainbird heads are used and located beyond the rails on both the inside and outside of the courses to prevent them from being crushed. That means spraying water in both directions across the entire width of the course. “The tough thing is that the wind and overlap can be challenges,” says Kozak. “We want to try to keep the footing consistent, so we don’t want overlap marks on the parts of the course that are being run on. We do a lot of tweaking with the irrigation system to accomplish that.”

Soft spots from excess irrigation or heavy rains in an area that drains poorly can be difficult challenges to overcome on a turf race course. “It’s not like on a golf course where you can put out a few stakes to keep people off an area,” says Kozak. “It doesn’t work that way. So, our director of racing is great in working with us if we know rain is coming to push any races scheduled on the turf courses earlier in the card so we can try to beat the weather.”

There are different philosophies on mowing height in the turf racing business, says Kozak. “We try to stay between 4 to 4.5 inches. We’ve gone to 16-foot Toro front rotary mowers here at Belmont, and we have Jacobsen units at Saratoga. We’ll mow at least twice per week during the race season,” he explains. The grass is not swept during the season to help minimize the amount of tire traffic on the turf. Large, tow-behind sweepers are used outside of the race season when the turf is mowed very low for renovation purposes. “Everybody has a different way of doing things, and we’ve looked into rotary rakes, but our clippings are so fine over such a large area that the vacuums seem to work best,” he says.

Kozak says horse owners, trainers and jockeys frequently walk the course before big races and, understandably, can be particular about the course set-up. “They watch everything, and rightly so. If they’re putting their horses out on a course, they want to know what they have to work with,” he says. “They have tough jobs also, and it’s nice because when we do renovation projects they recognize the improvements and they understand the countless hours that go in to getting any turf course as good as possible.”

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.