The importance of turf at the Kentucky Derby

As Always Dreaming passed State of Honor down the backstretch, drawing away from contenders Lookin at Lee and Irish War Cry, plenty of watchers at the Kentucky Derby couldn’t help thinking: How do they keep the turf down there so green, and why bother?

This year, Churchill Downs partnered with national lawncare provider TruGreen to ensure its world-famous course was a luscious green in time for the derby in early May. Yet, in the course’s most famous race, the Kentucky Derby, the horses run around a dirt track, so it might seem unnecessary to put so much work into tending the turf. The truth is, turf and the Kentucky Derby go way, way back.

TruGreen tends one of the highest-profile areas of Churchill Downs: the turf track. Just inside the dirt track, where Always Dreaming sprinted easily past his opponents, a seven-furlong track of green grass is available for other races throughout the year. Indeed, on non–Kentucky Derby days, the turf track typically sees two to three races, meaning TruGreen must be diligent with upkeep.

That turf track has endured a long, difficult history. When Kentucky’s first races began in the late 19th century, the space that would be Churchill Downs was little more than a wide, flat expanse. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the track earned its current name and the 1980s that the long-held idea of a turf course came to fruition. Named after Matt Winn, the most influential president in the course’s history, the turf course is a mark of prestige. Today, being a member of Churchill Downs’s Turf Club is a notable achievement.

When it was first constructed in 1984, the turf course was a mixture of Kentucky Bluegrass – planted not only for its deep roots in the Louisville region (though the grass isn’t native to North America at all) but also for its hardy turf – and Kentucky 31 Fescue, which is more resistant to traffic, drought, and disease than other varieties. Through the years, lawn care experts have blended additional grasses, including Turf Type Tall Fescue, which adds height and density to the lawn without broad, unattractive blades. In fact, fescues tend to grow in bunches, rather in spindly, rhizomatic blades like Bluegrass, so most lawn care providers are moving toward fescues in all lawn work. Ultimately, the current combination makes the turf track a gorgeous green and exceptionally resilient for times of high-use.

In addition to the turf track, TruGreen is responsible for managing nearly all other landscaped regions of Churchill Downs. For example, the Paddock, where horses are prepared prior to major races, is covered in a layer of soft turf to keep horses and handlers comfortable and safe. The nearby Aristides Garden – named after the Kentucky Derby’s first winning racehorse – is tended with bright tulips and other blooms to honor racers past and present. Further, TruGreen treats the tiniest cracks and crevices around Churchill Downs where vegetation might grow; weeds and other unwanted greenery can create structural instability in walls and walkways, so it is vital that landscapers know how to prevent growth as well as foster it.

TruGreen is a national brand with nearly as much history as Churchill Downs. Founded in 1973 in Michigan, TruGreen has rapidly become the nation’s number-one lawn care company. In fact, the company has been the official lawn care provider for PGA of America and the PGA Championship since 2015. Golf, like horseracing, is a high-profile sport that emphasizes impeccably manicured lawns and structured landscaping, and undoubtedly TruGreen’s experience made the company a shoe-in for the position at Churchill Downs.

TruGreen’s partnership with Churchill Downs is mutually beneficial. In addition to major sporting events, TruGreen proudly services home lawns and gardens, and the 170,000 guests at the Kentucky Derby – as well as the 16 million–plus TV viewers – add enormously to the company’s audience. Both Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby boast iconic branding, and TruGreen’s association with the well-loved event only stands to bolster its reputation.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of this year’s Kentucky Derby was the bucking and balking of non-finisher Thunder Snow. Just seconds after the gates opened, the horse refused to take another step on the muddy track. Perhaps, Thunder Snow caught a glimpse of the green grass just next door and longed for a race across TruGreen’s immaculate turf.