Talking Turf: Lehr Discusses Course Condition

Firm condition concerns some European Breeders' Cup participants.

Churchill Downs’ turf course was in the news Nov. 2 after the connections of foreign invader Workforce, the early favorite for the Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT), said the horse might not run because of concerns that it was too firm after his negative reaction to it. There also were reports that other European horses might defect as well.

With Kentucky's Louisville area in the midst of a severe drought, the course “is about as firm as it ever gets in the fall,” said Butch Lehr, a Churchill vice president who serves as track superintendent. "But we’re way out on the outside part (for morning training purposes) where we don’t race, and it’s better down in there on the inside where they’re going to be running.”

Lehr on Nov. 2 discussed the turf course’s condition and the maintenance challenges his staff has faced because of the drought.

“We mowed it for the last time about three days ago,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of frosts on it, and we’re not planning on mowing it again unless we have summertime (weather conditions) come back because it’s now starting to go dormant.”

Using the course’s irrigation system to add water, “we’re putting about 10 minutes of coverage over the whole thing each night, which amounts to about a quarter of an inch of rain,” Lehr said. “Before training started on it (for the fall meet) Oct. 25, we were actually putting (the water) on about 20 to 30 minutes (which is equal to a half-inch of rain or more).

"We start around midnight because we’ve got to do it when the wind dies down, which it hasn’t done, so it has affected us a little bit. We’ve even been putting a little bit of water on it during the afternoons.”

There is a series of drains underneath the course, “and normally this time of year we have them open,” Lehr said, “but we haven’t opened them up yet because we’re still trying to hold that moisture under there because of the drought.”

Churchill’s course, which is 25 years old, is the same as Keeneland’s in its design, according to Lehr. There are 14 inches of “masonry sand” underneath the grass, but there are “a lot more organics mixed in there now, so it’s not pure sand,” the Churchill official said.

The drought also is affecting maintenance of the dirt track.

“We harrow, roll, and condition it every day after training is done, and we’ve been keeping the crews later and putting water on it all through the day and part of the night,” Lehr said. “Then we seal it down and get back here early in the morning and start all over again. We’re putting probably around 60,000 gallons on it (during a 24-hour period). In the summertime, we put on as much as 100,000 gallons on it if that’s what it takes.”

There has not been a sloppy track at Churchill this year since the day of the Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (gr. I), May 1, and there has been no measurable rain at the track since June, Lehr said.

Lehr said he has been working with track surface specialist Mick Peterson of the University of Maine to maintain safe racing conditions at Churchill since soon after Eight Belles suffered catastrophic injuries while finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

“We’re just trying to compile as much scientific information as we can to back up what we do so people understand what we’re doing,” Lehr said. “I was really pleased with the latest information I got from him. We did some testing way before this meet started--during the Derby, through the summer, and before and after the spring meet.

"We had a concert here (the HullabaLOU Music Festival in July) and that went really well. The data Peterson got showed you couldn’t tell we had anything on (the racing surface to accommodate the performers and the attendees).”

Peterson will be at Churchill for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, Lehr said.

“(Breeders’ Cup officials) wanted to have a third party here if there are any questions,” Lehr said. “I think it’s a good idea. (Peterson) told me he’s going to be available to talk to anybody who wants to talk to him about how really good this track is.”