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Prepping for the fastest two minutes in sports

April 19, 2018  - By

Racing fans across the country are gearing up for the Kentucky Derby, “the fastest two minutes in sports,” which takes place May 4th and 5th. For Churchill Downs Superintendent Jamie Richardson and Horticulturist Matt Bizzell, the work put in for those frantic two minutes equals months, if not years, of hard work.

Some of the more staggering figures to counter a quick 120 seconds of action: 300,000 people visit Churchill Downs in the matter of three days. The thoroughbred horses, valued at millions, weigh up to 1,100 pounds and with their sharp hooves, can rip out entire chunks of turf. And in the greenhouse, 25,000 plants are cared for and put on display for the week.

In all, a hard-working crew of 35 people maintain the 165 acres of Churchill Downs, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., and the surrounding land recently purchased by the city of Louisville.

“When you have this many people coming through your facility in a short time, it’s really exciting,” says Richardson. “It means a lot to Louisville and the state of Kentucky. But after it’s all over, the facility is definitely trashed.”

Richardson places a high value on what is going on underneath the ground. He says strong roots are vital to stand up to the beating the horses can cause to the turf.

“There’s a lot of weight and a lot of action with the horses’ hoof,” he says. “When they turn, they can rip up some pretty good divots — it looks like a rooster tail of ground coming out from behind them.”

Last year for the Derby and the Oaks, it rained all week. Concerned about the turf on the 7/8ths mile length turf track, he made the decision to take the four non-stakes races off the turf. He says in hindsight, his roots were so good he could have left them on the grass.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” he says. “I was amazed with how well they held up. We had good solid roots all summer, 8 to 10 inches deep.”

Richardson says his keys to success for keeping good grass include aerating the turf several times (using a Toro ProCore), as well as slice-aerating a few times. For agronomic consulting he relies on TruGreen, which has helped eradicate a recent goosegrass problem.

TruGreen Regional Commercial Sales Manager Mark Rollman says it’s an honor to partner with such an iconic brand as the Kentucky Derby.

“Our goal is to be a resource for Jamie and Matt, and fill in the gaps,” Rollman says. “We focus on whatever they need us to focus on, and we use soil science to apply the proper products. Right now we’re still adjusting the potassium and magnesium to get the roots where we want them to be. We rely on Dr. Ben Hamza, director of operations for TruGreen. He’s a huge resource, and using his expertise, he proactively tells us what we need.”

The crew with the most at stake right now might be the horticulture crew. They’re furiously trying to get the 25,000 plants out on display, and timing is key. A late hard frost is what keeps Horticulturist Matt Bizzell up at night.

“Weather is always an issue for us,” Bizzell says. “The first frost-free date is the second week of May and we open the second week of April. A late frost is what could throw us the biggest curveball.”

The facility hosts two more events later in the year, so Bizzell and his staff work to keep the plants looking good for the duration of the season.

“We stretch it out to September,” he says. “From warm weather to cool weather, so we plant a lot of diversity.”

While maintaining Churchill Downs is a 365-days-a-year effort, with the big event only weeks away, Richardson and his team are all ramping up their workdays. The roots and the plants are all looking good. Yet those aren’t the biggest concern for Richardson and his team.

“Getting Churchill Downs cleaned up, and the turf cleaned up, is a big effort. It takes a while to get it back to normal,” he says. “But my number one concern is always the safety of the jockeys and the horses.”

Photos: Coady Photography

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About the Author:

Seth Jones, an 18-year veteran of the golf industry media, is Editor-in-Chief of Golfdom magazine and Athletic Turf. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Jones began working for Golf Course Management in 1999 as an intern. In his professional career he has won numerous awards, including a Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) first place general feature writing award for his profile of World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman and a TOCA first place photography award for his work covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his career, Jones has accumulated an impressive list of interviews, including such names as George H.W. Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Armstrong and Charles Barkley. Jones has also done in-depth interviews with such golfing luminaries as Norman, Gary Player, Nick Price and Lorena Ochoa, to name only a few. Jones is a member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association.

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