04/28/2005 12:00AM

After a three-year face-lift, there is floor after floor to explore

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Fans view a mural of the winning Kentucky Derby jockeys on the second floor of the newly renovated Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - So this is what a cool $121 million can get you these days.

Finally, thankfully, and mercifully, the renovation of Churchill Downs is complete. After 3 1/2 years of being torn down and rebuilt, a sparkling new facility will await racing fans when Churchill opens Saturday for its 2005 spring meet.

Quite predictably, the excitement has been palpable throughout the Churchill frontside and backside as opening day has neared.

"I'm comparing it to kids at an overnight sleepover who wake up and go into a candy store," said Churchill president Steve Sexton. "We've all been through a lot, and we're all tired. But when we get to see the reaction that people will have to the new facility, I think all the time, trouble, and money will be worth it then."

Six completely new floors in the clubhouse section are the main feature of the second and final phase of the renovation. The first phase, which began in December 2001 and consisted primarily of luxury suites atop the grandstand, was completed in time for the 2003 Kentucky Derby, after which the more complex and more expensive phase was undertaken.

The results are breathtaking. "I think any track around the country, if not in all of sports, would say they would dearly love to have $121 million to spend as they would like on modernizing their facility," said Sexton. "Not just anybody has that kind of opportunity. We're excited beyond words about what this new facility means to our company and our loyal fans."

Among many other things too numerous to list, the rebuilt clubhouse consists of:

* First floor: A snazzy and spacious main entrance at Gate 17, featuring a spectacular glass equine sculpture suspended from the ceiling; a spacious and more efficient entrance at Gate 10.

* Second floor: A new simulcast wagering teletheater, which will permanently replace the offsite Trackside simulcast annex following the Derby; two large wagering lounges, Silks and Champions; a mural by Daily Racing Form cartoonist Peb that depicts the Kentucky Derby's 130-year history through the faces of the winning jockeys; a work area for members of the Twin Spires Club.

* Third floor: First of two levels of the Turf Club; Matt Winn dining area with premium seating; interior box seats, the first in track history.

* Fourth floor: Second level of the Turf Club; director's room and stakes room; the new "Millionaire's Row" to cater to celebrities on Derby weekend; several dining and group-seating facilities.

* Fifth floor: The Trophy Room, a large, multi-purpose area for dining and other uses; 15 luxury suites located on or near the finish line.

* Sixth floor: The new Joe Hirsch Media Center, named for the retired Daily Racing Form columnist, to be used by working press; the "Gold Room" for Twin Spires Club members; a second "Millionaire's Row," another multi-purpose area.

Throughout the new building, there exists a tasteful motif that makes frequent use of the ubiquitous Twin Spires logo. The plant is dominated by flat-screen televisions and myriad other high-tech features that promise to make a day of racing at Churchill a more enjoyable experience.

Few people may remember that a pivotal aspect to the renovation occurred shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Despite the economic uncertainty that existed at the time, the Churchill Downs board voted to approve the renovation at a meeting on Sept. 27, 2001.

Carl Pollard, Churchill's chairman, said at the time: "It is imperative that we develop state-of-the-art facilities and first-class amenities comparable to other contemporary sporting and entertainment attractions in our area to ensure that the Kentucky Derby and its sister race, the Kentucky Oaks, continue to flourish as major sporting events and significant drivers for the regional economy."

That mission, it seems, begins Saturday, a historic day indeed.