FRANKLIN, Ky. (Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020) -- Kentucky Downs — whose unique all-grass meet in September offers among the highest purses in the world — recently completed the first major renovation of its turf course since the track was laid out in a field as a steeplechase course in 1990.
The project involved nearly half of the 1 5/16-mile kidney-shaped course. A swath five-eighths of a mile long and 63-feet wide around the spacious far turn and into the stretch was replaced with sod featuring a blend of 90 percent Kentucky 31 fescue and 10 percent Kentucky bluegrass. Kentucky 31, named for the state and year it was discovered (in this case, in 1931 by a University of Kentucky professor), is noted for its deep roots, resilience and disease resistance — all critical with the wear and tear of turf racing.
The project was overseen by track consultant Butch Lehr, whose 30 years as track superintendent at Churchill Downs included building the Louisville track’s turf course in 1985. Iron Bridge Sod Farms of nearby Bowling Green provided and installed the sod for the Kentucky Downs course.
The Iron Bridge crew killed off and dug up the existing grass in the impacted area, added new material to the soil and tilled it thoroughly to make the surface smooth and eliminate inconsistencies that can develop over the years. Soil analysis was then conducted, with the appropriate fertilizer applied before the sod was installed in strips from massive rolls.
“Obviously we face unique challenges with the Kentucky Downs course, racing exclusively on grass and with our unusual configuration and elevation variances,” said Ted Nicholson, Kentucky Downs’ Vice President for Racing. “Over the years, Kentucky Downs made improvements to the course, but this is the most ambitious overhaul we’ve had. Safety is the No. 1 priority. With Kentucky Downs now having six race dates compressed into eight calendar days, we want to ensure we have a course that is of high quality and safe for horses and riders throughout the meet.
“We’re thrilled with how it’s turned out. We were able to put down the sod during Kentucky's amazing November weather and feel confident that the course will be spectacular for our 2021 meet. In addition, we will be installing a new rail system that will allow for four racing lanes throughout the six dates.”
Lehr said that sod, compared with the seeding previously used, will make the grass grow evenly and will mature and establish a root network more quickly, with sod also providing erosion protection and weed defense.
He emphasized that the redone portions, from the three-quarters pole to the eighth pole, blend in seamlessly with the rest of the course. The only races configured around two turns are at 1 5/16 and 1 1/2 miles. The vast majority of Kentucky Downs races are staged at a mile or shorter, involving only the far turn.
“We concentrated on the heavily-used part of the track,” Lehr said. “This track is so different than traditional tracks in the United States with its up and downhill. What we tried to do is get a uniform material underneath, then made it really smooth. We’re fortunate that Iron Bridge had the ideal type of sod, which is not easy to find. I’m really feeling good about it.”