Turf's Up

09-18-13---Many know the basics about a turf course - How it can be firm, good, soft, yielding, how some turf courses clock faster times than others, or how the rail is moved to different places on the course to prevent over overuse in one area. Many do not know what Director of Turf Racing Surfaces at Laurel Park and Pimlico Robbie Mitten knows.

“The turf course is made up of 90% of tall fescue and 10% blue grass,” Mitten said as he crossed the Laurel Park dirt course. He ducked under the rail, walked up the small hill to the turf course and planted his feet on the turf. The same turf that he’s known for over 35 years.

Mitten was born and raised in Maryland. He grew up working on a small farm in Pasadena, Maryland that housed lions, tigers and bears (oh my). Throughout high school, he would go to the farm and train the lions to walk on leashes. Not long after a few run-ins with the exotic animals, he decided he wanted a less dangerous, normal job.

“A friend of mine was working here and I came here,” he said. “They were actually taking up the turn past the wire on the old turf course because it dipped a little. So I started with that. I would seed and fertilize the turf. And then it snowballed into this.”

To the untrained eye, the green horizon looked impeccable. Mitten, however, seemed to spot even the tiniest of inconsistencies, like the patch of clovers we passed that was smaller than my palm.

He walked down the course from the second finish line to the first. He paused, kneeled down to pick one of the strands and surveyed it. “Yes. See, now this is a good cut,” he said. The strand of grass had a perfectly horizontal trim at the top. If it didn’t, it could leave room for disease or fungus.

I asked if one had to have 20/20 vision for this job. Mitten laughed and shook his head. It’s like having an animal, a dog for example. You spend your time around your dog, day in and day out. If he’s happy, you know. If he’s sick, you know. If the Laurel’s turf course has anything other than blue grass and fescue, Mitten will know.

The attention to detail that Mitten and his crew, who often work as hotwalkers and grooms in the mornings and then go on to spend hours working the turf course in the afternoons, is not the only piece that makes this puzzle work. There is also a complex system above and below the surface.

Turf courses are set up differently around the country. No two are alike. Some tracks have a runoff drainage system in which water is either absorbed by the soil or runs towards the infield. In that case, if there is too much rain to be absorbed by the soil, there is a high possibility of the grass being softer closer to the rail. In Laurel’s case, there is a drainage system that takes place layers beneath the surface. When it rains a lot, water is absorbed through the ground and into drains that then transport the water from underneath the course to the infield.

How is it watered? Sprinklers. Very big sprinklers that are also referred to as guns that each send out 300 gallons of water per minute and have water pressure similar to the force of a fire hose.

Laurel’s turf course also has a system, accessible from Mitten’s iPhone, that lets him know the precise moment the first raindrop hits the ground and all that happens between the first and last drop. Mitten can also access a professional-grade weather program from his iPhone, that may look like dots on a screen to the average person but makes sense to both Mitten and any meteorologist.

Mitten is a grass expert, computer whiz (he once built his own computer from scratch), handyman, an unofficial meteorologist, and is someone who also takes the horse and jockey’s safety into high consideration.

This Friday night, after most people in the Laurel grandstand, including myself, are trickling out to their cars en route to their homes, there will be a crew on the turf course. Taking down rail three, and moving to rail one in preparation for the mile and one-half race on Saturday, one of six turf races.

So before you place your money at the window, put the bandages on your horses, or pull your boots on to ride, just know that Laurel’s turf doesn’t grow that way because of nature. It takes precision, attention to detail, brains, care and a lot of elbow grease to make the grass greener on this side.

Happy opening weekend.